Unintended Consequences

Gold King Mine 1899

Gold King Mine 1899

When in the course of human events, intentional actions bring unintended consequences, it may be intelligent to notice that there exists an imbalance that needs adjustment. Therefore I did appreciate an editorial that was posted in the NY Times online Aug 20, 2015 “When a River Runs Orange” by Gwen Lachelt. This article makes the point that mining laws placed on the books back in 1872 are still in effect and having an impact on the circumstances related to abandoned mining operations in the United States.

She notes that “A study by the environmental group Earthworks estimated that approximately 500,000 abandoned and unreclaimed mines litter the country. The E.P.A. says that mining pollutes approximately 40 percent of the headwaters of Western watersheds and that cleaning up these mines may cost American taxpayers more than $50 billion.”

EarthWorks has a lot of information on the General Mining Law of 1872 and the need for reform. They note that it was signed into law by President Ulysses S Grant and that the mining law allows “mining interests to take valuable hardrock minerals including gold, silver, and uranium from public lands without royalty payment to the taxpayer unlike other mining industries that extract coal, oil or natural gas” and “to buy valuable mineral bearing public lands for no more than $5 per acre” which was the price set in 1872 and which has never been adjusted for inflation. The fact is that “19th century America wasn’t concerned with environmental protection. So the mining law doesn’t contain environmental protection provisions”.

Animas River Before and After

Animas River
Before and After

It’s just that when rivers run an Orange color it attracts attention . . . “The Mining Law has been historically interpreted to trump all other potential uses of public lands. If you hold a mining claim, that claim is treated as a right-to-mine by the federal government. The federal government is on record as saying that they cannot say no to mining proposals. Even if those proposals threaten some of America’s most special places. Even if those proposals pollute clean water.”

And who are some of the people currently impacted by the EPAs unintended consequences when their contractor was investigating the Gold King Mine near Silverton, CO because it was already seriously polluting the Animas River ? When that big “oops” of accidentally releasing 3 million gallons of toxic waste water into the river happened. The “problem” now directly impacts the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. The Navajo Farming Authority has had to “shut off public water intakes and irrigation canals”. Hundreds of Navajo farmers and ranchers must now drive long distances to water their crops and livestock. “This contamination brings up memories of other environmental disasters caused by the federal government. One in particular that Navajo people are talking about is uranium mine contamination — a decades-long legacy that still affects people on the reservation today. The EPA has only started in the last seven years to clean up those mines.”

Navajo Sheepherder

Navajo Sheepherder

There have been some small legal patches applied in recent decades as noted in a Bureau of Land Management assessment of the Madison Watershed in Montana which includes information about the impacts of mining and abandoned mine lands there. Federal policy details as outlined in this report are probably pretty consistent in perspective everywhere mining has been a part of any local region – “The Mining and Minerals Policy Act of 1970, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), and the Natural Materials and Minerals Policy, Research and Development Act of 1980 direct that the public lands be managed in a manner that recognizes the nation’s needs for domestic sources of mineral production. Under the Mining Law of 1872, claimants have a statutory right to develop their mineral deposits consistent with applicable environmental laws. The mineralized areas of the watershed have seen extensive mineral development over the past 150 years. The BLM Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program is responsible for cleaning up sites determined to be hazardous to human health, to the environment, or those which present physical safety hazards to the public. Early mining prior to 1981 did not require reclamation or bonding, many of these abandoned mines have legacy features such as eroding dumps, abandoned tailings, or open mine features. Reclamation will be prioritized by the magnitude of the environmental problem, the severity of the safety risk, funding available, and/or the partnerships available to conduct the work.”

North American Lead Co Fredericktown, MO

North American Lead Co
Fredericktown, MO

So why do we at Yemm & Hart care ? – apart from having environmentalist’s hearts in general. It is because we live and work in an area that has been contaminated by mining practices in the past. My region of Missouri was historically and heavily influenced by early lead mining and later on in more recent times cobalt mining as well. Mining here has left large tracts of “wasteland” locally. Lead mining in our region dates back to the very first French settlers before there was even a General Mining Law of 1872. The sad truth is that mining practices in our region resulted in us becoming “known” as a EPA SuperFund Site identified as the Missouri Mines Site. Before the local population knew “better” tailings from the mines were often used on residential yards, in sidewalk construction and on driveways. Children in the area have been widely tested for lead exposure and remediation has been accomplished locally by digging up yards and replacing top soil.

It is interesting to note that my husband comes from a long family line of coal miners beginning in the Gloucestershire area of the UK and immigrating into the coal fields of Illinois and Indiana in the US. Eventually, his family worked their way out of the mines and into other occupations but it is still interesting to note that we ended up on a farm in the Lead Belt mining region of Missouri – although thankfully there were no direct mining activities here on our land or anywhere nearby.

Lachelt notes at the end of her editorial that there is a comprehensive reform of the old law currently being attempted and that “Congress already has a bill before it that will do it: H.R. 963, the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015, introduced by Representative Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona. The new law, currently bottled up in committee, would create a fund to clean up abandoned and inactive mines by establishing an 8 percent royalty on all new hard-rock mines on public lands, a 4 percent royalty on existing mines on public lands and reclamation fees on all hard-rock mines, including those that were ‘purchased’ for low prices under the 1872 Mining Law. A similar system is already in place for abandoned coal mines, so there’s no practical reason it can’t work for hard-rock mining too. The bill would also improve both reclamation standards and requirements that mining companies financially guarantee that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for cleaning up existing mines.”

~ Information Resources

“When a River Runs Orange” posted Aug 20, 2015 in the NY Times online – http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/20/opinion/when-a-river-runs-orange.html?ref=opinion&_r=1

General Mining Law of 1872 posted at EarthWorksAction.org – https://www.earthworksaction.org/issues/detail/general_mining_law_of_1872

“Navajo Nation Farmers Feel The Weight Of Colorado Mine Spill” story on NPR by Laurel Morales aired Aug 17, 2015 – http://www.npr.org/2015/08/17/432600254/navajo-nation-farmers-feel-the-weight-of-colorado-mine-spill

“‘Yellow Dirt’: The Legacy of Navajo Uranium Mines” aired Oct 22, 2010 on NPR and based on the book “Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed” by Judy Pasternak – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130754093

Pgs 10 -11 and 58 – 59 – “Mining, Minerals and Abandoned Mine Lands” in the Madison Watershed of Montana, report published at Bureau of Land Management – http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/mt/field_offices/dillon/madison.Par.4414.File.dat/report.pdf

“Madison County Mines EPA Superfund Site” – http://www.epa.gov/Region7/cleanup/npl_files/mod098633415.pdf

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Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer

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