The mining industry: private profits from public land

Phosphate mining on public lands. BLM

The General Mining Act allows hard rock mining companies (including foreign-owned ones) to do pretty much whatever they want on a lot of public land, most of it in the West, without paying royalties on what they take. It was signed by President Grant in 1872 and it’s time for a change.

Under the law, mining companies — not the government — decide whether and where to file their claims on public land. (National parks, monuments and wilderness areas are excluded.) Federal agencies review the plans, but they are approved as a matter of course. Mining companies pledge to protect rivers threatened by their operations. But the industry’s track record hardly inspires confidence.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that headwater streams in 40 percent of Western watersheds are polluted by mining. A scientific review in 2006 of 25 modern Western mines by the environmental group Earthworks found that more than three-fourths resulted in water contamination. Over all, the E.P.A. has estimated that it will cost $20 billion to $54 billion to clean up abandoned mine sites.

Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money agrees that the law desperately needs to be changed, but reminds us that mining in the West has been big business for a long time.

We have this idea of a grizzled old man finding a big hunk of gold in the middle of the river and yelling “Eureka!” but that’s only ever been true in the first days of a mining district. One of the many historical things the show “Deadwood” did very well was get at this transition. The Black Hills gold fields were very quickly taken over by large conglomerations using brutal methods against both labor and nature to find the color. Any number of other western mining districts–Coeur d’Alene, Leadville, Butte, Virginia City–share essentially the same history.

This doesn’t take anything way from the 21st century implications of the General Mining Act. We need to protect this land and mining operations are horrible things. But it’s also important to note that they have been horrible for a very long time and there’s no reason to ignore that.

Concerns about proposed “mineral withdrawal” plans for the Chetco River in Oregon and last week’s ban on new uranium claims near the Grand Canyon have focused national attention on the ongoing problem of protecting public lands from an irresponsible industry. Congress has considered legislation to place some general restrictions on mining operations in the past but the industry has lots of friends in Washington, especially in an election year, but it’s time to stop the gravy train for the mining industry.