Cantwell: Mining Reform is Long Overdue

Environmental and Community Health Issues Must Be Addressed

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) today pressed government witnesses, including Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, on the urgent need to update an 1872 mining law that makes it difficult for states to protect public lands. The hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee focused on legislation to update the Mining Law of 1872, a 137 year old law that governs mining on western public lands.


Because the 1872 Mining Law interprets mining as the ‘highest and best’ use of public lands, federal land managers are literally unauthorized from denying any mining project that could have harmful affects on the environment and other competing public uses of the land,” said Cantwell.  “In Washington state, our public lands provide enormous economic and conservation benefits that increase the quality of life for all our citizens.  If we don’t have meaningful reform, many of America’s most treasured places, including roadless areas, will continue to be claimed for mining.


At the hearing, Cantwell pointed out that in a recent Environmental Impact Statement for a proposed gold mine in Idaho, the Forest Service emphasized that it does not have the authority to deny the mine under the 1872 Mining Law. 


In the last 20 years, 16 modern mines have gone bankrupt, leaving the federal government with the clean-up bill.  A 2003 report from the Mineral Policy Center estimates that American taxpayers are potentially liable for up to $12 billion in cleanup costs at hardrock mining sites. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), metal or hardrock mining in Washington released more than 14.5 million pounds of toxins in 2005 – placing Washington ninth among 17 states that reported chemical releases from metal mines in 2005. 


The Washington Department of Ecology estimates that there are 3,800 abandoned mines in Washington.  One of these abandoned mines is the Midnite Mine located within the Spokane Indian Reservation.  The EPA listed the Midnite Mine as a Superfund Site in 2000 and warned the tribe about its dangers.  Although mining operations ceased in 1981, the full extent of the health impacts associated with such activities is not yet known.




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