Friday, February 22, 2008

136-year-old law opens U.S. West to more mining plunder

In the West, abandoned tailings, tailings ponds and seeping chemical pollution are the telltale signs of more than a century of nearly unregulated mining activities that left states and localities a legacy of expensive environmental cleanup.

The General Mining Law of 1872, still on the books after 136 years, treats mining like an industry of swashbuckling frontiersmen traveling the West on mule and eking out a living with picks and shovels.

This romantic fiction has allowed mining firms to literally gouge profits from public lands without paying any significant royalties and leaving environmental disasters in their wake—an estimated 500,000 abandoned mines in Western states that would cost $30 billion to $70 billion to clean up.

The 21st-century mining industry is composed of international conglomerates that devour politicians the same way they devour hundreds of tons of earth in one gulp with large earth-movers.

Using the cover of the 1872 act, several mining companies have obtained rushed U.S. approvals for test drilling of possible uranium--one site northeast of Stanley near the Salmon River, one near the Grand Canyon in Arizona and one in the Four Corners area of the Navajo Nation, whose landscape of coal and uranium tailings looks like a battlefield of artillery and bomb craters.

The drilling permits were issued without any formal public hearings at which state agencies and environmental groups could offer comment or protest.

This is the 21st-century version of extractive industries that swept into the sparsely settled Wild West of the 1800s, plundered the land of riches and left.

Westerners are wiser today. They place a higher value on the land's protection and the purity of the environment than the quick profits of industries whose headquarters are in Canada or on Wall Street.

To prevent further ravages of Western lands, Congress must repeal the 1872 Mining Act and in its place impose a proposed new law that requires royalties to be paid to public coffers in exchange for the ability to extract riches from lands owned by the public.

Any new law must also give states power to prevent Washington from unilaterally opening states to unwise exploration or mineral extraction.

Western states have suffered enough from Eastern exploitation. In just one example, U.S. atomic tests in Nevada unleashed incalculable tons of radioactive fallout on whole states, spreading the misery of cancer.

Must uranium mining corporations be allowed to foul more land and air and water and threaten human health with their hunt for profits before the law is changed?

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