Gold has long been advertised as the "gift that lasts a lifetime." True to the slogan, gold does last a lifetime, as demonstrated by the enduring shine that gold jewelry and coins display even after thousands of years of being buried or lost at sea.
Unfortunately, gold’s shine isn’t
the only thing that lasts a lifetime. Waste from the mining of gold
and other minerals has plagued generations of Americans throughout
the nation, and in particular, in the West. Unlike the gift of gold
or silver jewelry, which tends to bring a smile to the face of the
recipient, those on the receiving end of mining waste, including
plants, fish, animals and man, face depleted supplies of clean
water, the ingestion of toxic chemicals, even death.
impact of mining waste throughout the West is staggering. Colorado
alone estimates there are more than 23,000 abandoned mines in the
state. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, of the 11,300
abandoned mines located just on Colorado’s national forests,
more than 1,500 continue to damage the environment.
mercury seeps from abandoned mines in Oregon that the state health
division warns people not to eat fish from 11 bodies of water.
Abandoned mines in Oregon are estimated to release 680 to 6,700
pounds of mercury into the environment every year.
than 100 years of copper mining has polluted 120 miles of the once
pristine Clark Fork River in Montana, creating one of the largest
Superfund site in the country. In Wyoming’s Yellowstone Park,
plant life suffers along a river corridor polluted decades ago by
The list of environmental degradation associated
with mine waste seems without end. The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency estimates that mining waste has contaminated more
than 40 percent of the watersheds in the West with a chemical stew
of cyanide, mercury, copper, acids, arsenic and lead.
serious and complex is the problem that the Western Governors'
Association passed a resolution last fall urging Congress to adopt
a program for the cleanup of abandoned hardrock mines in the West.
Legislation introduced by Democratic Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado
would do just that. Known as the Abandoned Hardrock Mines
Reclamation Act of 2002, the legislation would create a long-term
Reclamation Fund contributed to by hardrock mineral producers. The
fund would be used to help pay for the cleanup of hazardous waste
from abandoned hardrock mines. The legislation would also create a
new permit program at the Environmental Protection Agency that
would help to reduce the liability associated with cleanup efforts
-- liability which has prevented volunteers and mine companies
alike from cleaning up abandoned mines.
Congress and the administration have shown little interest in
addressing this critical problem. Similar mine-waste cleanup
legislation introduced last year didn’t make it eventhrough
the committee process. Interest is also lacking for bipartisan
legislation that would help reform the root of the mining-waste
problem – the 1872 Mining Law.
The law allows
hardrock mining companies to mine public lands for as little as
$2.50 an acre and pay no royalty payments to the owners of those
lands --American taxpayers. The law has become an open door for
fly-by- night mining companies with few assets and little interest
in protecting the environment or public health.
trait plants, animals, fish and humans have in common is our
reliance on clean, fresh water. Water is literally the source of
life. Yet throughout the West, battles are already brewing over who
and what will be given access to rapidly depleted supplies of clean
water. Ironically, the vast majority of the West’s current
water supply flows off the forests, which also happen to be where
the majority of abandoned mines are located.
mine-waste problem is not going to go away on its own. It is only
going to get worse as operating mines and those long abandoned spew
more and more pollutants into the environment. If nothing is done
to address the problem, mine waste will continue to pollute
precious water resources, now and into the future.
Congress and the administration would be wise to begin to address
this problem and help save our remaining water resources and all
living things that depend on them. Acting on the Abandoned Hardrock
Mines Reclamation Act would be the first step in that direction.
Reforming the antiquated 1872 Mining Law would be the