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This week, the House Natural Resources subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing entitled, “Exploring 21st Century Mining Safety, Environmental Control, and Technological Innovation”.

There is no question mining has undergone sweeping technological changes since the era of picks and shovels- men pursuing their Manifest Destiny by seeking their fortunes from the gold buried in the hills. Nowadays, mining relies heavily on remotely controlled automation, wireless monitoring, drones and virtual reality goggles designed to reduce costs and improve safety.

More Mining More Problems

While the mining industry has made strides toward improving mine safety, modern mining has yet to succeed in preventing pollution. In some sense, these mines have caused problems of a magnitude not possible before the advent of mechanized equipment. Recent catastrophes in British Columbia and Brazil, where dams holding toxic mine waste breached, spilled millions of gallons of heavily polluted water.

Part of the problem is the mining industry too often drags their feet through the permitting process, providing inaccurate or incomplete information to regulators. Permit applicants also make overly optimistic predictions in their water quality models. They basically say their mines will never pollute. In fact, 83% do.

Lest We Forget

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has told us that mining has polluted 40% of Western watersheds and that clean up costs for abandoned hardrock mines totals an estimated $50 billion. Whether caused by current mines or as a legacy from a bygone era, the mining industry cannot abdicate their responsibility to fix the damage they created.

Modern mining needs modern rules. An antiquated 1872 law still governs domestic hardrock mining. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regulations have not undergone any significant changes since the early 1980s. Loopholes in the Clean Water Act allow the mining industry to characterize toxic mine waste as if it were wood chips and treat our rivers, lakes, and streams as “waste treatment systems”.

For the Future

Technological advances can help address some of the environmental problems mining creates. However, technology only gets employed where the rules so require. We cannot expect the industry to reduce their environmental footprint on their own accord, nor to internalize their costs otherwise spread around to the rest of us. Only regulation will effectively incentivize the use of technologies that reduce pollution.

Mining has moved on since the Gold Rush days. We no longer have a place for mining laws designed to encourage settling the West. To avoid future disasters like those in Canada and Brazil, we urgently need modern reforms to our legal and regulatory apparatus giving discretion to land managers, requiring best available technology, and regular enforcement.

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