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.