During Reconstruction following the Civil War, the Ulysses S. Grant administration passed the General Mining Law of 1872 to incent mining in the West. Today, however, the challenge is ensuring that the West is a clean, safe place to live for the descendants of those pioneers. Unfortunately and incomprehensibly, the same law still governs the hardrock mining industry nearly 140 years later.
Currently, the hardrock mining industry makes up less than 1% of our nation's economy but is the source of 46% of industrial pollution. The environmental ramifications are vast, including the contamination of 40% of the headwaters of Western rivers with runoff from mining sites that includes cyanide and arsenic.
In contrast to the coal, oil and gas industries, mining companies—even foreign-owned companies—have the right to extract minerals from American public lands without paying a cent in royalty fees. Moreover, the 1872 law does not hold mining interests accountable for paying to clean up the mess they leave behind. Clean-up costs of abandoned mine lands are estimated at $50 billion, a burden the American taxpayer is largely expected to bear.
The 1872 law mandates that mining interests receive preferential treatment in all uses of public lands, trumping uses including recreation, hunting and fishing. Land managers have little choice but to grant almost all requested permits. For example, as uranium prices skyrocketed in recent years, hundreds of permits have been granted to conduct uranium mining in close proximity to the Grand Canyon, posing a risk both to public health and to a national treasure. During the uranium boom of the 1970s, heightened activity at the Grand Canyon led to increased cancer clusters and kidney disease in both the neighboring tribes and miners. Regrettably, the Grand Canyon is just one of several iconic national parks threatened by nearby mining allowed under a law that clearly needs to be updated.
LCV is working to promote legislation geared toward solving these issues. Among our key priorities are: balancing mining with other important uses of public land; protecting National Parks and National Monuments from destructive mining practices; protecting special places from new mining claims; giving local communities input; establishing strong environmental standards to prevent further water contamination; and accelerating cleanup of abandoned mines through a robust royalty program