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Hardrock Mining

Westward, Ho!

During Reconstruction following the Civil War, the Ulysses S. Grant administration passed the General Mining Law of 1872 to encourage pioneers to develop the untamed Wild West. Today, however, the challenge is ensuring that the West is a clean, safe place to live for the descendants of those pioneers. Unfortunately and incomprehensibly, the same law still governs the hardrock mining industry some 138 years later.

A Free Pass for Mining Polluters: 137 Years and Counting

Currently, the hardrock mining industry makes up less than 1% of our nation's economy but is the source of 46% of industrial pollution. The environmental ramifications are vast, including the contamination of 40% of the headwaters of Western rivers with runoff from mining sites that include cyanide and arsenic.

In contrast to the coal, oil and gas industries, mining companies- even foreign-owned companies- have the right to extract minerals from American public lands without paying a cent in royalty fees. Moreover, the 1872 law does not hold mining interests accountable for paying to clean up the mess they leave behind. Cleanup costs of abandoned mine lands are estimated at $50 billion, a burden the American taxpayer is largely expected to bear.

The 1872 law mandates that mining interests receive preferential treatment in all uses of public lands, trumping uses including recreation, hunting and fishing. Land managers have little choice but to grant almost all requested permits. For example, as uranium prices continue to skyrocket about a thousand permits have been granted to conduct uranium drilling in close proximity to the Grand Canyon, posing a risk both to public health and to a national treasure. During the uranium boom of the 1970s, heightened activity at the Grand Canyon led to increased cancer clusters and kidney disease in both the neighboring tribes and miners.

In 2008, Bureau of Land Management lands, upon which uranium mining exploration was being conducted, were withdrawn under emergency powers. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar upheld the withdrawal for a period of two years while he moves forward on determining future action. Meanwhile, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and the House National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) have introduced bills to permanently protect these lands around the Grand Canyon.

Seeking Modern Solutions

LCV is working hard to promote modern legislation geared toward solving these issues. Among our key priorities are:

o Balancing mining with other important uses of public land
o Protecting National Parks and Monuments from destructive mining practices
o Protecting special places from new mining claims
o Giving local communities input
o Establishing strong environmental standards to prevent further water contamination
o Accelerating cleanup of abandoned mines through a robust royalty program

Both Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Joe Rahall (D-WV) have introduced legislation this Congress to reform the 1872 law.