"The mineral lands of the public domain, both surveyed and unsurveyed, are hereby declared to be free and open to exploration and occupation by all citizens of the United States."
- General Mining Act of 1872
Thanks to outdated laws and a political process corrupted by corporate interests, our nation's most spectacular gifts of nature at risk. The Pew Environmental Group outlines "Ten Treasures at Stake" in a report that examines mining claims surrounding ten iconic parks.
These incomparable places could be at risk because of the outdated 1872 Mining Law that puts prospecting ahead of other activities on most of America’s public lands. Congress has repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to modernize this statute, despite the fact that even industry experts say it should be updated. But until the law is brought up-to-date, few good options exist for protecting such places as the Grand Canyon from hardrock mining, except for a time-limited “withdrawal process,” which the Obama administration is currently considering.
To provide context for the Pew report, I will first briefly discuss the danger posed the General Mining Act of 1872, the law that still governs hardrock mining.
The General Mining Act of 1872
The General Mining Act of 1872, which governs hardrock mining on federal lands, gives away minerals mined from federal lands, requires a token lease payment, and leaves the mess to the taxpayer to clean up. Loopholes in the act have also given rise to the transfer (legalized theft) of public lands to private hands.
Here is one description of the Act's many deficiencies from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2001. At the time this article was written, the Clinton administration had signed updated provisions into law, but the Bush administration struck them down within hours of taking office.
Under terms of the antiquated law, miners cart away everything from gold to kitty litter from public lands -- minerals worth about $11 billion in the last eight years alone. Not only does the U.S. Treasury get nothing, Congress has granted miners a tax break worth an estimated $823 million in the coming decade.
Over the years, public lands the size of Connecticut have been made private under terms of the 1872 law, all for $2.50 to $5 an acre, though not all of it has been used for mining. Some claims became ski resorts, housing subdivisions, hotels and even a brothel, in Nye County, Nev.
In case you have any doubt about the absurd terms of the General Mining Act of 1872, here is a look at the major provisions. Industry organizations provide ample guidance to mining operators how to get rich off the taxpayer and even take the public lands for pennies on the dollar of actual value.
To stake a claim, one merely has to fill out paperwork at a BLM office and with the county government and pay a $140 fee. Companies must undergo an environmental assessment to get a BLM permit to mine, but they pay no royalties on the proceeds of their sales. In contrast, oil and gas companies pay gross royalties of 12.5% for onshore production, and coal concerns with federal underground mine leases pay 8%.
LA Times, April 15, article by Neela Banerjee
Mining reclamation has always been a joke. The General Mining Act of 1872 had no provisions for reclamation. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation of 1977 requires coal mining operations pay a tax used to pay for cleanup of abandoned mines, but other mineral mining operations are not burdened by taxes to clean up mines and can get away with posting a bond too small to cover the costs of reclamation. The industry gambit has always been to declare bankruptcy when a mining operation plays out and leave the mess to taxpayers.
When a mine goes bankrupt, taxpayers sometimes get stuck with the costs of cleaning up the mess -- more than $275 million for three mines alone in Colorado, South Dakota and Montana that closed in the 1990s.
The sociopaths that run the mining companies intend to follow through with appropriation of federal lands by private companies. Here is a quote from the Bob Walish, manager of the Canadian mining company Cambior, that nicely summarizes the attitude of the industry.
Echoing the industry's supporters in Congress, Walish said the government should follow through with the intent of the mining law -- to privatize land in the West. More than half of some states are still owned by the government, he noted.
"The debate in our mind isn't that we're stealing this from the public," he said. "It's 'Why is there (still) all this public land?'"
As noted by the Pew report, mining claims are given precedence to other land use on these public lands. The Bureau of Land Management under the Bush administration went so far as deem local opposition to mining operations to be "irrelevant."
As for chances of reforming this corrupt process pushed by the National Mining Association, here is how the LA Times summarizes the prospects.
Reform seems just as unlikely now. The Republican-controlled House is committed to protecting industry in general, and the Senate is led by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), whose state includes vast gold mines. The powerful National Mining Assn. opposes competitive bids and royalties on gross proceeds from mineral sales.
LA Times, April 15, article by Neela Banerjee
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Ten National Treasures At Risk From Mining
From the Pew Environment Group press release:
Ten Treasures at Stake: New Claims and an Old Law Put Parks and Forests at Risk (PDF) uses federal data to map claims staked around 10 national parks, wilderness study areas, historic and cultural sites and other natural landmarks. On the list are Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Arches, Canyonlands and Joshua Tree National Parks; Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota; Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in Washington; Siskiyou Wild Rivers in Oregon; Gila Wilderness in New Mexico; and Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah.
The report finds that more than 8,000 claims have been staked in national forest and other public land adjacent to the Grand Canyon since 2004, a 2,000 percent increase. More than two-thirds of the claims on public lands near Yosemite National Park and 99 percent of claims surrounding Arches and Canyonlands in Utah have been staked since 2005.
Signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, the 1872 law gives mining companies “free and open access” to nearly 350 million acres of public land. It also allows mining companies—even those that are foreign-owned—to take approximately $1 billion annually in gold and other metals from public lands without paying a royalty, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified the hardrock mining industry as the nation’s top polluter, citing more than $2 billion in federal spending over the past decade on mine cleanup.
After efforts to reform the 1872 law stalled in Congress in 2009, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who has called mining law reform a top priority, initiated a process under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to withdraw roughly 1 million acres of public land around the Grand Canyon threatened by uranium mining activity. On February 17, the Obama administration called for comment on four alternatives. They range from the original proposal of more than 1 million acres to as few as 300,000 acres protected, as well as an option that would allow new claim-staking to resume around the park. A final decision is expected this summer.
The Grand Canyon is the most at risk from mining, almost all from uranium claims. These claims, if opened to mining operations, with threaten air and water quality in large areas to the north and south of the park. Land degradation and contamination from uranium mining will further threaten the park environment.
According to BLM data, there were fewer than 100 mining claims before 1995 in an area known for uranium deposits on the outskirts of Grand Canyon National Park. By 2004, as the price of uranium rose, that number more than tripled, with approximately 320 claims staked in a year. In 2006, a claim-staking frenzy hit the area, resulting in more than 3,200 new claims; and in 2007, when the price of uranium hit a 40-year high, an additional 2,900 claims were staked.
This graph shows the rapid escalation of claims on the edges of the Grand Canyon until the Department of Interior called for a temporary moratorium to consider options to protect the park.
The location and density of mining claims around the park boundaries are well illustrated in a slideshow in the Pew report.
For a detailed discussion of the uranium mining threats to the Grand Canyon National Park, see this earlier post.
The following table summarizes mining threats to nine other sites. I have tabulated total mining claims within 5 miles of the site boundary along with the number submitted since 2005 to show the recent rapid escalation of claims.
|Site||Total Mining Claims||Claims since 2005|
|Joshua Tree National Park||275||70|
|Yosemite National Park||120||81|
|Siskiyou Wild Rivers Area||1000||500|
|Mount Rushmore National Memorial||40||15|
|Canyonlands and Arches National Parks||950||905|
|Dinosaur National Monument||35||10|
|Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument||60||55|
Favorite Lies by the Mining Industry and Supporters
1. The mining operations generate significant tax revenue.
Many of the mining operations have foreign assets and ownership that facilitates avoidance of federal tax revenues, even though these leases are typically on federal lands. Employment and other taxes paid locally are trivial. In fact, thanks to a myriad of loopholes and absurd tax rate for mining operations in Nevada, mining companies pay almost no taxes in that state. Arizona's mining tax rates are only marginally higher. When you look at the tax receipts as percentage of metals value, most of the states with mining operations near federal lands in this report have tax receipts under 2% of metal value extracted.
2. The mining operations create jobs.
This laughable assertion ignores the reality of these strip mining operations. They are all dynamite, drag, and dump operations involving heavy equipment and few employees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics report that 80% of mining operations employ less than 20 workers. Most of the larger operations mine coal. The outlook for the coming decade is for further reductions in mining operations due to mechanization.
3. The mining operations benefit US interests.
Virtually all of the mining claims around the Grand Canyon are controlled by foreign mining operations who intend to sell the ore on the world market. It is the height of dishonesty to suggest that our national security or energy needs are being met by these operations. In fact, one the ludicrous aspects of the lax ownership and sales of our minerals is that the commodities often wind up benefiting countries like Russia, Iran, and China. Canadian, British, and Australian companies control most of the claims around the Grand Canyon and intend to sell the ore outside the US.
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Pew Environment Group report on mining threats to national parks, national monuments, and wilderness areas:
Read the press release
Read the executive summary
Read the full report
Media coverage of the General Mining Act of 1872 as it relates to claims on public lands:
Seattle Post-Intelligencer (June 2001) article on the General Mining Act of 1872
LA Times (April 2011) article on the Pew Environment Group report
The Guardian (February, 2011) article on uranium mining claims around the Grand Canyon