The metals mining industry is the single largest source of toxic waste and one of the most environmentally destructive industries in the country. Today’s massive mining operations involve blasting, excavating, and crushing many thousands of acres of land and treating the ore with huge quantities of toxic chemicals such as cyanide and sulfuric acid.
The mines that produce our gold, silver, copper, and uranium notoriously pollute adjacent streams, lakes, and groundwater with toxic by-products. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 40% of the watersheds in the western United States are contaminated from hardrock mines. Toxic spills and acid mine drainage kill aquatic life, poison community drinking water, and pose serious health risks.
Record metal prices coupled with new technologies allow the mining industry to exploit places—and at a scale—that would not have been feasible in the past. For example, the Pebble Partnership is proposing to build North America’s largest copper and gold mine in the remote headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the source of the greatest runs of sockeye salmon left on earth.
Adding insult to injury, the American public receives very little in exchange for the use and destruction of the public lands where many hardrock mines are located. Most mines are owned by foreign corporations and, unlike other extractive industries, the hardrock mining industry does not pay royalties for minerals taken from federal public lands. What’s more, taxpayers are generally on the hook for the clean- up of abandoned mines. EPA estimates that the half million abandoned mines across the country could cost as much as $50 billion to clean up.