1872 Mining Law

Obama again looks pretty much like Bush, this time allowing mining companies to dump toxic waste on public land

In my post on the week’s biggest enviro news – Obama’s massive expansion of offshore oil drilling – I noted that increasingly, Obama's environmental decisions are indistinguishable from those made by the previous inhabitant of the White House. Nothing demonstrates that better than this week’s biggest sleeper enviro news: Obama approving dumping of small mountains of toxic waste on public land.

It’s all related to the General Mining Law of 1872, which even today gives mining companies access to gold, silver and other precious metals on public land – without asking the mining firms to pay anything to the public for the minerals taken off public land.

Obama's decision this week – which has gotten very little attention – backs the  Bush administration's stance: allow mining companies to use large amounts of land around their mines to dump mining waste laced with all kinds of nasty stuff.

To really get the picture of how industrial-scale gold mining is done in America today, you have to understand that whole hillsides are ground to dust and then doused with cyanide to extract the tiny percentages of gold contained in the ore.

After that, these whole hillsides worth of dirt have to go somewhere. Miners want to use public land for that. The Bush administration said OK. This week, so did the Obama administration, acting in a case in which enviros challenged a Bush-era decision allowing the waste dumping on so-called “millsite” land around the actual mine.

Mining industry wraps itself in a green flag to fight reform of 1872 Mining Law

Ah, we have to chuckle when we see the latest enthusiasts to stand up in favor of combating climate change: the mining industry.

nw-mng-assn-logoHere's the deal: Laura Skaer, director of the Spokane-based Northwest Mining Association, explained recently that mining companies are fighting White House and Congressional efforts to impose a royalty on hardrock mines on public land. 

Such a move would bring firms that dig up gold, silver and the like on public land into the same category as those that unearth coal and oil on federal property: They'd pay at least a small fraction of what the minerals are worth to the government. Imposing royalties would end what's widely viewed -- even inside the mining industry -- as one of the most anachronistic features of the 1872 Mining Law.

Skaer told to Stephanie Simon of The Wall Street Journal that zinc, molybdenum and other minerals covered by the 137-year-old law are going to be needed for wind turbines, solar panels and other weapons in the fight against global warming. Impose a royalty? No way, Skaer says:

Then we've traded our dependence on Mideast oil for a dependence on foreign minerals.

A proposal by Rep. Nick Rahall -- a Democrat from coal country, West Virginia, where there's lotsa tusslin' about mining, but where at least the government gets cash for the coal taken from public land -- is pushing for an 8 percent royalty. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who has some hardrock mines in his state, New Mexico, is looking at 2 percent to 5 percent royalty.

Obama administration to finally require mine clean-up dough?

We've been waiting a long time for this. It was eight years ago at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that we published the most comprehensive and probing journalistic analysis to date of the General Mining Law of 1872.

A major point of our investigation was that the federal government was failing to require mining companies to post bonds ensuring their environmental damage would be cleaned up if they went bankrupt. We reported that hundreds of millions already had been required of taxpayers to clean up the messes of firms that went toes-up in the notoriously cyclical mining business, which nowadays often grinds entire hillsides to dust and doses them with cyanide to recover low concentrations of gold interspersed in the rock.

epa-logo1After our series ran, the Bush Administration basically yawned. And then, prodded by the mining industry, the administration moved to make things even easier for mining firms, undoing some of the work done by the Clinton administration to try to rein in the damage.

And there things stood for quite some time -- except the damage mounted. The most prominent example was the bankruptcy of Asarco, which left behind more than 90 Superfund sites in 21 states with a cleanup cost of $1 billion.

Now comes news that the Obama administration's Environmental Protection
Agency is going to make the mining companies post bonds that will guarantee cleanup costs if a firm doesn't make  it financially.