Legally Green: Environmental regulation-free mining?

April 20, 2011

Earth(Editor’s Note: With both Earth Day and Arbor Day falling within the month of April, we’ll be looking at important environmental-related laws and cases throughout the month in an effort to evaluate the current state of environmental law in the U.S.)

To view the first installment of the series on Massachusetts v. EPA, click here.
To view the second installment of the series on the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository, click here.

What do the 19th century gold rush and U.S. national parks have in common?

Aside from a little known 139-year-old law, not much.

The law, the Mining Act of 1872, allows the staking of mining claims on public land, with much of this land surrounding or sometimes directly within national parks.

It was enacted thanks to persuasion from Western congressmen that then-illegal miners on government land were performing valuable services of settling territory and increasing commerce.

The law made these illegal mining operations legal: it allows any U.S. citizen or corporation to extract as many valuable minerals (gold, silver, copper, uranium, etc) as they wish and pay no royalties or other fees towards any cleanup cost.

According to government estimates, at least $1 billion worth of hardrock minerals are extracted each year thanks to the law.

It’s also very cheap to stake a claim.

The price for a land claim hasn’t changed since it was enacted: between $2.50 and $5.00 per acre. While that was quite a bit in 1872, it’s not so much nowadays.

Okay, so the government is giving away its natural resources. What does this law have to do with our national parks?

According to a recent Pew report, quite a bit.

Because the law has essentially gone unchanged since it took effect, it gives no consideration to any environmental impacts of mining operations.

In short, almost no environmental regulations impact these operations.

They have a blank check to mine and dump any pollutants they want without any federal regulations or administrative controls affecting them.

The practice is only becoming more common: according to the Pew report, claims have risen substantially since 2004 at ten identified national parks, with the Grand Canyon’s increasing a staggering 2000%; this is mainly due to rising global prices on the minerals.

As should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with hardrock mining operations, the Environmental Protection Agency has found that the industry releases more toxic pollutants than any other.

Unsurprisingly, these pollutants find their way into water sources and the ambient air, which in turn find their way into national parks.

Even if you’re not a bleeding-heart environmental type, this occurrence should still cause concern, since many of these polluted water sources supply human populations, namely, the Colorado River.

Grand CanyonThe river is a vital water source for people across the Southwest, and it just happens to run through the Grand Canyon, where quite a bit of mining occurs.

Most disconcerting is the fact that uranium is mined there extensively.

While Director of the Interior Ken Salazar ordered a 2-year moratorium on new uranium mining claims in 2009, preexisting mining operations are still running and still risk contaminating the river.

Congress twice attempted in 2007 and 2009 to impose small royalty fees on mining operations to help offset cleanup costs (estimated in the aggregate to be $50 billion), but each died at the end of its respective legislative session.

There is little chance of reform of the bill garnering widespread popular support, mainly because public knowledge of the issue is so limited.

Unfortunately, though, the environmental effects from these mines will not be so limited.