Law governing mining is badly out of date

With gold and other metal prices at record highs, a modern minerals rush is on -- spurring new mine proposals, expansion of existing mines, and new claims staked on public lands. Yet the Mining Law of 1872, which governs metal mining on over 363 million acres of our public lands, dates back to the era when mining was typically done with a pick and shovel.

The mining law, enacted to help settle the West, makes mining the highest priority on most federal lands. As a result, applications to mine public lands often cannot be denied despite adverse impacts to other resources. As the late Sen. Lee Metcalf of Montana noted more than three decades ago, the Mining Law of 1872 is the "only law that puts the land use decision entirely in the hands of the developer."

As fisheries biologists with well over a century of combined experience, we are concerned with persistent impacts to our nation's fisheries, and the demonstrated inadequacy of the 1872 Mining Law to regulate today's large-scale mining.

Modern mining is nothing like it was a century ago. Today's massive mines are highly mechanized and use chemicals toxic to aquatic life to extract copper, gold, uranium, and other metals from ore. A recent comprehensive study of modern U.S. mines challenges the perception that today's practices are adequate to protect water quality (see The study reviewed 25 Western mines, and found more than three-fourths resulted in water pollution.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, headwaters of 40 percent of western streams are polluted from mining, and cleanup costs are estimated at $32 billion to $72 billion ( cfm). Such persistent water contamination threatens drinking water supplies, valuable fisheries, wildlife, agriculture, recreation, tourism, human health and industries that rely on clean water.

Numerous examples of valuable fisheries and aquatic ecosystems harmed by metal mining exist across the West:

• The Formosa Mine in Oregon, which operated from 1990 to 1993, has contaminated 18 miles of the Umpqua River watershed, and it releases approximately 5 million gallons of acidic water annually.

• The Zortman Landusky Mine in the Little Rockies of Montana has polluted a dozen streams, and its acidic runoff is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

• The Summitville Mine in Colorado eliminated all fish from a river reach and a reservoir where historic acid mine pollution had already reduced fish numbers.

• The Kensington Mine in Juneau, permitted in 2009 to dispose of millions of tons of mine waste into Lower Slate Lake, eliminating the entire native fish population.

Healthy sustainable fisheries support important local and national economies and depend on clean water and healthy watersheds. Recreational fishing generates over $1.2 billion in annual revenue from public lands. We recently published an article in the July 2010 issue of Fisheries, where we recommended a number of policy changes to update the esoteric Mining Law of 1872 law, including:

• Establish clear environmental standards.

• Allow federal land managers to balance mining with other public land uses rather than giving primacy to mining.

• Designate sensitive lands and waters off-limits to hardrock exploration and development.

• Restore fish and wildlife habitat to pre-mining or reference conditions.

• Prohibit mines likely to result in perpetual water pollution and/or requiring perpetual water treatment.

• Prohibit mine discharges to surface or ground water that degrade water quality and improve mine monitoring and enforcement of regulations.

• Increase pre-mining financial responsibility of permittees.

• Create funds and Good Samaritan legislation to aid in clean up of abandoned mines.

Mining is an important industry. But it is unwise for it to continue to operate at such great expense to clean water, healthy fisheries and taxpayers. Last week, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts introduced a mining law reform and abandoned mine clean-up bill (H.R. 3446), which tackles many of these important issues. We encourage Congress to bring our nation's mining law into the 21st Century. It's long overdue.

Dr. Carol Ann Woody heads Fisheries Research & Consulting in Anchorage. Others contributing to this commentary were Dr. Robert M. Hughes of Oregon State University; Dr. Kitty Griswold, a fisheries scientist with Biolines Environmental Consulting of Idaho; Eric J. Wagner, fisheries scientist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources; Dr. John D. Woodling of Woodling Aquatics in Colorado; and Dr. Thomas Quinn of the University of Washington.