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The General Mining Law—Time to Reconsider

The West was full of opportunities for immigrants in the 1800s, so much to be discovered under the surface of the earth. Our deserts were seen as an endless supply of precious metals waiting to be revealed. The General Mining Law was created in May of 1872 to give structure to the “Wild West” style of mining that existed in the western United States at the time. Since its creation, there has never been a major change made to the law. New mining practices have become more costly and cause greater irreversible impacts to our environment. Mining for precious metals plays an important role in our nation’s shift towards green energy, but it also is governed by laws that do not protect the environment. Is it beneficial to our nation that we operate large scale industrial mining the same way that we regulated small artisanal miners 150 years ago?

A group of miners at an unidentified Nevada mine; PC: Western Mining History

A History of Mining

After the goldrush in the 1840s and 50s, many miners shaped their lives around finding the precious metals in the hills of western deserts, which helped sustain many families. Miners would set up camps around sites, creating their own set of “mining laws” among the people in their communities. These mining laws had limits on the size of their mining claims as well as the amount of time that an individual could work on their claim. This freelancing lifestyle was concerning to Easterners but also promoted new settler development and commerce in the recently acquired western land. The General Mining Law was created to set a price on mining claims of $2.50 to $5.00 per acre and set a maximum size for these lode claims. This was important because it made staking a mining claim relatively accessible and gave mineral rights to the person leasing the land.  Much to future generations’ dismay, these regulations did not include an environmental protective measure or require any taxes, on a state and federal level, to be paid regardless of the amount of profit made by the mining company. This allows for any public land managed by the US Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management that is not already in use to have a mining claim staked on that land. 

A mining claim can be made by anyone. Right now, you could go out and stake a claim on federal public land and whatever you find on that land is yours to keep, tax free! These same regulations also apply to large scale mining companies, even ones from other countries. The large corporations will stake mining claims that allow them to destroy desert habitats in order to mine various minerals. They will then extract these minerals and sell it for use to local American companies without paying any taxes or royalties to the state and federal governments. Mining can only be done on public land, and federal land managers are often unable to deny mining proposals like these. Agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service operate on a “multiple use sustained yield” mission. This means that the public land they regulate has to be considered available for many different resources; mining, recreational, or military are just a few examples. Mining is, however, an important part of today's economy and is important for a future with green energy. Lithium, for example, is one of the precious metals found in our deserts, and its properties are a key component for reusable batteries and electric cars. 

Overview of Mining Practices

The four most common types of mining are surface mining, underground mining, placer mining, and in-situ mining. Surface mining is the collection of minerals just below the surface of the land, so this mining is done horizontally instead of vertically. Surface mining includes open pit mining, strip mining, and quarry mining. Of these three, open pit mining is the most visually destructive to the desert landscape because large holes are carved into the sides of mountains to extract as many layers of minerals as possible. The desert is a very fragile ecosystem whose characteristics have been created over the course of thousands of years of minimal disturbances.

Open pit mining in New Mexico; PC: Joe Raedle

In-situ mining is also very destructive to our ecosystem because it introduces lots of possibilities of pollution. In this technique, lixiviant, a solvent that dissolves the desired mineral is poured into the mining site and then the liquid mineral is extracted through a borehole and treated for use. Lixiviants can be water, acids, or sodium bicarbonate, depending on the mineral being mined. This contaminates the surrounding unmined soil with the solution, altering the natural environment.

Attempts to Amend the Law

The General Mining Law has its fair share of criticisms, and there has been a push to make changes to this outdated law that will enforce more environmental protection and payment to the states. We now know the environmental impacts that come with large scale mining, and the laws governing this practice should reflect this knowledge. In the 1900s some amendments to the law changed the types of minerals that a claim can be staked on, increasing the number of minerals that can be mined on one tract of land, and creating budget restrictions for the amount of mining claims allowed for the Bureau of Land Management.

There has also been a series of acts aiming to put royalties and fees on mining claims. The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 as well as the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Acts of 2007, 2009, 2014, 2015 and 2017 tried to introduce maintenance fees, make miners legally responsible for spill cleanups, and add royalties and reclamation taxes. The majority of the money collected from these proposed fees would go towards the treatment of polluted water and land resources affected by toxic spills during mining. These acts have never been passed, because they were never brought to a vote and died at the end of each year's congress or committee.

Negative Impacts for Us and the Environment

Technological advances in the mining industry made more invasive techniques possible and caused more damage to our environment and to the surrounding areas, not just in the specific mining sites. In order for a mine to be approved, companies must go through an environmental assessment process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970, where they assess the potential impacts and alternatives to a project. Tests and observations during this process take into consideration the mining site’s possible effects on animals, plants, air quality, water quality, cultural value, and many more environmental factors. This process serves only as a way to inform the project lead agencies of the possible impacts and how they can be reduced. The NEPA process is unable to stop a harmful mining project from occurring, but will at least offer baseline data on the site's current environmental condition to provide guidance on best methods to continue the project. 

Water sourcing is often an overlooked factor of mining practices. Mining one ton of ore requires 500,000 gallons of water, and sourcing this water is taking away from nearby communities living in a climate where water is already in short supply. Mining also requires additional infrastructure to be built to store and transport the minerals. Access roads need to be paved if the mining site is further off of the main road. The increased vehicle use and movement of sediment could create dust storms which affect air quality. Rainy seasons can carry contaminated sediments from the mining sites into nearby water tables, which would negatively affect water supply. 

Improper containment practices from acid mine causes water pollution in river tinto; PC: Carol Stoker

Aside from environmental damage, mining can cause economic damage if projects are rushed or done incorrectly. An environmental assessment will go through each possible impact on our environment in order to make the most informed decision for project location, size, and technology used. If the public thinks the company has missed an important section of the analysis or part of the process was done incorrectly, they can sue the company and have them reevaluate that portion of their project proposal. Projects that run out of money can declare bankruptcy and mining equipment can be left in the mountains, only to be cleaned up at the taxpayers expense.

Mining is an important part of moving towards green energy, but the General Mining Law is an outdated piece of legislation that is making it too simple for large corporations to profit off destroying our environment. There is a lot of incentive for mining since we need precious metals like lithium and copper to create rechargeable batteries or electrical wires. However, it is also very important that we keep our environment clean and healthy: the desert is a fragile ecosystem and any damage we inflict will not be restored in our lifetime. New amendments  should be added to the law that will include stricter regulations on mining practices and mitigations, considerations of environmental impacts, and require a tax and royalties on the minerals mined. 


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