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September 8, 2015

Dear Members of Congress,

The Gold King mine waste spill into the Animas River in Colorado has focused national media and political attention on a broader issue  – the hundreds of thousands of abandoned and inactive mines that are actively polluting surface and groundwater, and occasionally threaten catastrophe.  This particular spill was tragic, but it was not an isolated event.

These older mines are inherently problematic today because they were not built or operated with proper reclamation plans or long-term environmental liabilities in mind.  Today, our mining technology and understanding of the industry’s impacts are vastly superior to that of 150 years ago.  Yet rather than use that knowledge to better protect the environment we are instead building mines thousands of times larger than Gold King that we know will pollute water for thousands of years and require expensive water treatment forever.

Who will pay for this liability ten, twenty, or thirty generations from now, when the mining company once responsible is no longer legally identifiable and no private or corporate money is available?  Under the 1872 Mining Law, future taxpayers will shoulder this enormous financial burden.  This is one reason among many why we urgently need to modernize this law.  If mining companies cannot clean up after themselves, they should not be allowed to operate in the first place.

Many inactive mines are not abandoned. They have current owners who should be held accountable for the environmental performance of their properties.  Others, however, were left behind long ago and have no responsible parties to be charged with cleanup.  Modernizing our mining law should tackle both scenarios.  

We need full accountability for those who own or once owned problematic mines, and to ensure that truly abandoned mines can be cleaned up through a dedicated funding stream. Under the 1872 Mining Law, federally owned hardrock minerals remain the only category of extracted resources that can be taken for free from public lands.  This anything-goes, nineteenth century approach to mining must end.  Modernizing the 1872 Mining Law means:

  • Protecting watersheds by creating a dedicated funding source for abandoned mine cleanup;
  • Protecting future generations from perpetual mining pollution;
  • Protecting communities’ health and economies, and the environment, by allowing federal land managers to balance mining with other potential land uses, and to deny inappropriate mine proposals;
  • Establishing strong environmental standards for hardrock mining operations and reclamation;
  • Provide a fair return to the American taxpayer for the minerals extracted from our public lands.

Approximately 40% of western watersheds are polluted by mining, much of it from the estimated 500,000 abandoned and inactive mines that litter the West.  The Gold King spill has shed a spotlight on the urgency of the risk that mining — past and present — poses to our drinking water, our watersheds, and our economy.

Fortunately, Congressman Raul Grijalva and Senator Martin Heinrich are taking the lead on hardrock mining and reclamation reform, and we applaud their efforts. We call on you to stand behind meaningful mining law reform that would bring real solutions to the problems posed by both historic and modern day mining operations.