When two Democratic senators killed the Omnibus Mining Act of 1872 reforms this fall, one of the casualties was a royalty that would have helped pay for the recovery of abandoned hard rock mines. The proposed load of 7 cents per ton of material would have brought in around $200 million over the next decade – a paltry amount, given that the cost of a simple inventory of abandoned mines on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land is estimated to be over $650 million, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
There are at least 140.000 abandoned hard rock mining features – such as tunnels or toxic waste piles associated with mining – on federal lands. And that’s just what’s cataloged; Federal officials estimate there may be more than 390,000 additional abandoned mining features on public lands that have yet to be identified.
It’s unclear how many billions of dollars it will take to clean up this mess. The federal government has always lacked solid data on hard rock mines in general because few of them incur federal royalties.
But abandoned mines are dangerous: each poses environmental risks ranging from waste contaminating the ground to tunnels constantly leaking toxins into waterways. Such mines litter the western United States, but some of the worst offenders are near Indigenous communities – a tangible example of this country’s environmental racism.
BEFORE ENVIRONMENTAL REFORMS as the Clean Water Act and the Superfund Act came into effect in the 1970s and 1980s, there was only the General Mining Act of 1872. Still in effect today, the act governs the mining of minerals from hard rock – such as gold, copper, lithium and uranium – on public lands.
Congress passed the law nearly 150 years ago to encourage settlement and development in the West. The law did not establish royalties, which could have given Americans a financial return for the industrial exploitation of their public lands. Nor did it give miners any instructions or regulations on how to repair the damage caused by mining to the land.
The scars piled up. Even after late 20th century reforms began to require miners to clean up after themselves on public lands, there was often no responsible party to hold accountable. If the mine operator died or the company dissolved, the taxpayers inherited the burden.
The government covers part of the cleanup costs. A group of federal agencies — the BLM, National Park Service, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, Forest Service, and Environmental Protection Agency — have spent about $2.9 billion to tackle physical security and environmental hazards at abandoned mines between fiscal years 2008 and 2017. But BLM officials estimate it would take $4.7 billion to address the nearly 65,000 physical safety hazards just on the lands they administer while processing hundreds of thousands of additional uncataloged items; the agencies are currently far from being up to it.
The staff is also a major obstacle. Given BLM’s current staffing and budget for abandoned mine workings, officials say it could take up to 500 years just to confirm the presence of safety or environmental hazards, according to a GAO. report.
ALL PUBLIC LANDS in the United States are the ancestral lands and sometimes the unceded territories of indigenous nations. Today, many abandoned mines are clustered near Indigenous communities. According to a 2017 paper by researchers at the University of New Mexico, more than 600,000 Native Americans – about 15% of the native peoples of the West – live about 6 miles from an abandoned mine.
For years, for example, the abandoned Formosa Mine in Oregon fled million gallons of acidic water and toxic metals in streams near the homeland of the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Indian Tribe. Because the company that operated the mine had been dissolved, under the Mining Act of 1872, American taxpayers were left behind for a estimated at $12 million in cleaning costs.
In Idaho, old mines on Nez Perce ancestral lands have degraded the water quality of the South Fork Salmon River, an essential way of life for the tribe. Today, the proposed Stibnite Gold project would involve the development of several new open pit mines on these lands. The tribe strongly opposes it: “Given the legacy of wanton dispossession and destruction of our lands and resources through gold mining,” said Nez Perce Vice President Shannon Wheeler . wrote in 2020, “the tribe is committed to preventing this damage from ever returning to our people.”
Diné people living on the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico fear additional pollution from uranium mines in the aquifer that supplies their water. Past mining of radioactive ore has already caused higher rates of cancer, as well as respiratory and kidney problems, in this region. Cancer rates on booking double from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Abandoned mines are just one of countless environmental injustices affecting Indigenous communities in the United States. environmental justice is only a tangential concern.
“In terms of remediating uranium mines,” says Eric Jantz, an attorney at the nonprofit New Mexico Environmental Law Center, “the federal government tends to do a lot less for tribes and tribal communities. than in more Anglo-Saxon communities”.
“The federal government tends to do a lot less for tribes and tribal communities than it does in more Anglo-Saxon communities.”
A BLM spokesperson said projects selected for remediation under its Abandoned Mining Lands Program receive an “environmental justice analysis” and that “BLM continues to implement relevant executive and secretariat orders on environmental justice.” But on the ground, in places like New Mexico, that doesn’t always mean much.
Manuel “Manny” Pino (Acoma Pueblo), a retired sociology professor at Scottsdale Community College, grew up mining uranium. Since childhood, he has witnessed the environmental degradation caused by mines. When her grandmother died of cancer, her worry intensified. “We had no history of cancerous illnesses on that side of the family, and I started wondering if his illness was correlated to all this uranium development,” Pino said. “As we started to see people dying, we started to wonder: who is responsible for this?”
Pino recalled that uranium-related illnesses began to appear first among miners. By the 1970s, however, members of the general public suffered the same fate. In hindsight, this was not surprising; Pino remembers the high desert winds blowing radioactive dust everywhere, including onto the agricultural areas where the pueblo members grew their food.
Although uranium mining has ceased near Acoma, Pino said, the federal government has yet to address the effects of legacy pollution by caring for those affected. This includes, he said, expanding the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and make more aggressive cleaning efforts in marginalized communities. Pino mentioned red water pond, a Navajo Nation community in New Mexico where a Cold War-era uranium mine remains uncleaned.
“Would it take that long if it was a large municipality where middle-class white people lived?” Pino said. “It’s beyond racism, it’s beyond injustice. It’s genocide, because they knew the problems existed.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Government Control Projectan independent, non-partisan watchdog that investigates and exposes waste, corruption and abuse of power.
Cody Nelson is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and audio producer. Follow him on Twitter @codyleenelson.
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