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Changing our mines

As claims encroach on cities, an 1872 law isn't protecting us from environmental and health threats.

March 14, 2008

In 1872, Hawaii's King Kamehameha V died and ended a dynasty, Apache leader Cochise agreed to retire to a reservation, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in the presidential election, and a dusty California outpost known as Los Angeles opened its first public library. A few things have changed in this country since then, but not the law that regulates hard-rock mining on federal lands.

When President Grant signed the General Mining Act of 1872, the intent was to encourage settlement of the untamed Western frontier. The law accomplished this by essentially giving away federal lands, selling territory to miners for what was even then a very low price and allowing them to take all the minerals they wanted without paying royalties to the government. Further, it dictated that mining would take top priority for use of these lands -- more important than, say, recreation or wildlife conservation. That gave communities or environmentalists very little recourse to challenge mining claims.

Astonishingly, this law has remained on the books for 136 years despite clear and widespread evidence of vast environmental harm and threats to public health. Hard-rock metals mining was the top source of toxic pollution in the United States in 2006, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Mining is responsible for more Superfund sites than any other industry, leaving behind polluted water, deadly air and, in the case of uranium mining, radioactive waste.

It seems inconceivable that this could go on for so long, but the mining industry benefits from its relative invisibility. Until recently, most mines were on lands far away from cities, so few people witnessed the environmental damage they wreak. That's starting to change.

A worldwide shortage of metals and uranium has caused prices to skyrocket, leading to an explosion of mining claims -- many of them close to urban areas. According to a report from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, the number of claims has doubled in the last five years, including more than 16,000 within five miles of cities and towns throughout the West. This is increasing conflicts over land use and raising awareness that the government has long been abrogating its responsibility to regulate a highly polluting industry.

The House has passed a bill that would reform the 1872 mining law, imposing royalty payments on miners and giving regulators more power to block claims in environmentally sensitive areas. The Senate has been holding committee hearings on the issue, but no bill has yet been introduced. It's long past time that Congress laid Grant's mining legacy to rest.

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