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Groups say overhaul of outdated 1872 Mining Law urgently needed as surge in metal prices and mining claims fuels new mines in the West

Washington, D.C. — Local elected officials, Native Americans, and conservationists welcomed the introduction today of a new bill in Congress to protect clean water and western public lands from the impacts of metal mining. Championed by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV), the bill would overhaul the antiquated 1872 Mining Law, which allows mining of metals (like gold, copper and uranium) virtually anywhere on western public lands with few environmental safeguards and no return to the U.S. Treasury on the value of metals taken from those lands.

“It is time for a modern mining law — one that recognizes that some places need to be protected from mining, gives taxpayers a fair return, and one that recognizes those companies that are acting responsibly today and in the future,” said Stephen D'Esposito, president of EARTHWORKS. “We look forward to working with Congress, industry, and impacted communities to finally reform this law,” he continued.

Fueled by record-high metals prices and increased demand from China, more than 89,000 new mining claims have been staked in western states in 2006 — a six-fold increase over 2001, according to Bureau of Land Management data. Altogether, there are roughly 7.2 million acres of mining claims on federal lands. The big jump in claims, coupled with the fact that the outdated 1872 Mining Law still governs mining on public lands, has many westerners worried.

New mines are being proposed across the West — from Mount St. Helens to the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, the Boise River watershed in Idaho, and uranium mining in New Mexico — where residents fear that drinking water, wildlife, and public health will be harmed.

In Arizona, a large open-pit copper mine is being proposed near Tucson in the Santa Rita Mountains. All six local towns, and nearby counties, oppose the mine because of concerns of the effects on water supplies, wildlife habitat, and recreation opportunities.

“Recreation, wildlife, and water in southern Arizona are threatened by a 135-year-old law passed before the invention of the light bulb,” said Ray Carroll, County Supervisor for Pima County, Arizona. “We need a mining law for the 21st century — a law that recognizes that there are certain places that should not be mined.”

Representatives from several western communities are in Washington, D.C. this week to urge lawmaker support for 1872 Mining Law reform and highlight threats to clean water and special places on federal public lands.

  • In Washington, Idaho General Mines is proposing a large mine in the 1980 blast zone of Mount St. Helens. Local elected officials and residents oppose the mine, which could also harm imperiled salmon and steelhead runs in the Green River and downstream drinking water supplies of Kelso, Longview, and Castle Rock.
    “I think most people would agree that mining in a volcanic blast zone, near one of the nation's premier recreational destinations is a bad idea,” said Don Gregory, the Mayor of Kelso, Washington. “We need a mining law that allows common sense and good judgment to rule — not the outdated land-use priorities of a century ago.”
  • Uranium mining has serious environmental and human heath impacts. A uranium mine at the base of Mt. Taylor active during the previous uranium mining boom still has not been cleaned up. Several mining companies have proposed new uranium mining projects that impact Mt. Taylor which is sacred to a number of New Mexico and Arizona Tribes and Pueblos including the Acoma Pueblo. The Tribes and Pueblos oppose these projects.
    “Uranium mining has devastated the health of many native communities in this country with diseases such as cancer, asthma and genetic disorders,” said Laura Watchempino of the Acoma Pueblo. “A law passed to govern pick and shovel miners is clearly inadequate to deal with the potentially deadly impacts of uranium mining.”

Mining has already polluted the headwaters of 40 percent of watersheds in the West, according to EPA. A scientific study released last December by EARTHWORKS found that more than 75 percent of the permitted mines studied breached water quality standards — polluting rivers and groundwater with toxics and exposing taxpayers to huge cleanup liabilities.

Because the 1872 Mining Law gives mining highest priority on public lands, mines are permitted regardless of conflicts with other public land values. In addition, claim holders can buy public land outright, a process called patenting, for 1872-era prices of $2.50 or $5.00 an acre. Under the law, the federal government has given away more than $245 billion in mineral rich public lands, according to EARTHWORKS.

The Rahall bill would fix these problems by:

  • Setting strong standards to protect precious water resources from toxic mine waste;
  • Imposing a federal royalty to compensate U.S. taxpayers for extracting valuable minerals from public lands;
  • Protecting special places by allowing officials to deny mines that threaten clean water, important wildlife and fisheries, recreation and other values; and
  • Allowing meaningful public input from communities and water users affected by proposed mines.
  • Ending patenting, a vehicle for federal land giveaways.