In his March 3 Morning Consult op-ed, Hal Quinn, CEO of the National Mining Association, calls on Congress to “streamline” the permitting process for hardrock mines on the nation’s public lands, arguing that the U.S. is hostile to mining, disadvantaging our domestic mining industry.
What he neglects to mention is that the U.S. does something that no other government in the world does — it gives the industry publicly-owned minerals for free. Thanks to the generous terms of the federal mining law first enacted in 1866, the hardrock mining industry, which is dominated by a handful of multinational companies, pays the taxpayers nothing for all the gold, silver, copper and other minerals worth billions of dollars it has extracted from the nation’s public lands. That’s right — zero, nada, zilch.
It is no surprise, then, that industry analysts consistently rank the U.S. among the world’s best places for mining investment. According to one leading survey, the U.S. in 2015 was ranked third, behind only Canada and Australia. Another survey of mining company executives last year ranked Nevada and Arizona, which lead the nation in gold and copper production, among the world’s “top ten most attractive jurisdictions for mining investment.”
Despite this, Quinn argues that the proposed legislation he touts (the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act) is needed to encourage more domestic production of important strategic commodities. Interestingly, that proposal defines “strategic and critical minerals” so broadly as to include ordinary minerals like sand, gravel and building stone, and also gold, even though most of it is used to make jewelry. His argument that mineral imports threaten our security is vastly overstated. Most imports of strategic minerals are from friendly countries and many have never been found in commercial quantities in the U.S., despite the industry’s free rein to explore on hundreds of millions of acres of public land for the last century and a half.
Quinn says we can streamline the permitting process “without weakening environmental safeguards.” But he proposes to fix something that’s not broken. A 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office found that over the past several years, the average processing time for approving mining plans on public lands was about 24 months, not the 7-10 years that Quinn says it “can take.” GAO also found that a leading cause of delays was “incomplete or vague” proposals submitted by the mining companies.
Careful review and public scrutiny are imperative, because modern hardrock mining is one of the most environmentally hazardous of all industrial activities. The Environmental Protection Agency’s annual “Toxic Release Inventory” shows that every year the metal mining industry produces more than one billion pounds of toxic pollution — especially lead, zinc and arsenic compounds — more than any other industry, and one-third of the entire nation’s total.
Modern mining involves moving vast amounts of earth and rock — gold mines move literally hundreds of tons of rock to extract a single ounce of gold — leaving enormous waste piles and tailings ponds. If not engineered correctly, they can fail and when they do, they cause enormous environmental harm and take human lives downstream, as shown by catastrophic failures at hardrock mines in British Columbia, Brazil, Romania and Spain in recent years. Toxic pollution from hardrock mine sites can, the EPA has noted, “take years to develop, and pose a long-term risk of hazardous releases.” Indeed, many hardrock mines will require perpetual water treatment.
The U.S. has more than a century of unhappy experience dealing the poisons that are often the legacy of hardrock mining on public lands. Many of the nation’s so-called Superfund sites, the most toxic sources of pollution, are at abandoned mines and processing facilities. Thousands of abandoned mines on public lands are contaminating groundwater and thousands of miles of rivers and streams, threatening the health and quality of life for residents of many western communities.
The industry is not so much concerned about streamlining as it is trying to escape responsibility for the pollution it creates. It took years of litigation to force the U.S. EPA finally to propose, in January, regulations to require adequate financial assurance from companies proposing to conduct mining operations in order to prevent owners or operators, as EPA put it, “from shifting the burden of cleanup to other parties, including the taxpayer.” The industry is now working to stop EPA from finishing this job.
We agree with Mr. Quinn that “the time is now to refocus on our hardcore mining policies.” Hardrock miners should be required to pay fair market value for the minerals they extract. Mines should also be required to meet commonsense environmental safeguards, and the industry should pay into a fund so that taxpayers don’t have to continue to underwrite the cost of cleaning up the industry’s past sins and any future cleanups.
John D. Leshy is emeritus professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law, a former solicitor of the Interior Department (1993-2001), and the author of a book on the history of U.S. mining law. Roger Flynn is adjunct professor at the University of Colorado School of Law and the founding director of the Western Mining Action Project, a public interest law center working to hold hardrock mines to proper environmental standards since 1993.
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