It’s deeply troubling to hear that the mining industry, and its allies in the Trump administration, want to gut bedrock environmental laws and public engagement in order to grease the skids for hard-rock mines.
Twenty-five years ago, a Canadian mining company showed up in my community in the Okanogan Highlands of north-central Washington, planning to build an open-pit cyanide-leach gold mine on Buckhorn Mountain. Today, the Buckhorn Mine is tapped out, the gold exhausted, and the company is beginning to clean up the mine site. While it’s difficult to restore the mountain to pre-mining conditions, strong state leadership and an empowered community are at work trying to ensure that the mining company fulfills its obligations so we will not suffer the fate of so many other communities across the country, where abandoned mines require water treatment in perpetuity.
Our community has been engaged from the beginning, pushing for an open and transparent review process. We expressed our concerns and, backed by the courts, forced the mining company to abandon the open-pit mine proposal and build a less damaging mine underground. The mine hasn’t been perfect by any means, but our participation in the environmental-review process reduced the overall impact on our land, water and wildlife.
I am deeply troubled to hear that the mining industry, and its allies in the Trump administration, want to gut bedrock environmental laws and public engagement in order to grease the skids for hard-rock mines. They’re hiding it behind national-security and infrastructure concerns, but don’t buy that for a second. This is a blatant giveaway to the mining industry: the weakening of already weak community and environmental protections against the impacts of hard-rock mining.
Our experience changing the Buckhorn Mine notwithstanding, U.S. mining policy badly needs strengthening. That’s because today’s mining industry is still governed by the General Mining Act of 1872, enacted when a miner’s most important tools were a pick and a shovel. Today’s mines are massive industrial facilities, and hard-rock mining is the country’s largest source of hazardous pollution, according to the Toxics Release Inventory. The EPA estimates the cost to clean up America’s hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines at more than $50 billion, a sum that dwarfs the entire annual Superfund budget (though this fact has not prevented the president from proposing a further 30 percent cut to the program).
I fail to see how “streamlining” the mine-permitting process will address these problems. The U.S. already has one of the most permissive regulatory regimes in the world, something the mining industry itself acknowledges. The Fraser Institute’s 2016 Annual Survey of Mining Companies named two U.S. states, Nevada and Arizona, among the world’s most attractive jurisdictions for mining investment. And unlike other extractive industries such as coal, oil and gas, under the 1872 law, mining companies pay no royalties for the minerals they claim, funneling hundreds of billions of dollars in public wealth to private hands.
Fortunately, we are seeing signs of progress. U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, Democrats from New Mexico, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Michael Bennet, D- Colo., have introduced the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act to prioritize American taxpayers over foreign mining companies. Under the 1872 law, mining trumps all other use of public land. Their bill would bring much-needed balance, allowing decision-makers to weigh industrial-scale mining with other important land uses, such as water supplies, conservation, recreation and renewable energy development. I hope we can count on Washington state’s Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray to support meaningful reform of the 1872 Mining Law, as they have in the past.
If the Buckhorn Mine can teach us anything, it is that good science, laws and regulations and an informed public improved the process. Transparency and accountability can prevent an environmental travesty while still allowing for economic development.
I hope the president and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rethink this misguided push to reduce community input in mining decisions. People have a right to know and be involved in projects that impact their lives. A thorough modernization of the 1872 Mining Law can protect our families, our water and our future.
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Information in this article, originally published March 19, 2018, was corrected March 20, 2018. A photo caption in a previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year the Buckhorn Mine’s upper mine portal was blasted. It was 2006.