In a recent column, National Mining Association President Hal Quinn concealed his call to weaken environmental standards for mining under the guise of infrastructure rebuilding. It echoes orders from President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to gut bedrock environmental laws in the name of infrastructure and national security, claiming that fast-tracking permits for domestic mines will make the United States less reliant on foreign countries for so-called “critical minerals.”
We have come to expect the mining lobby to use deceptive rhetoric to advance its agenda, but it’s alarming to hear it from the White House. We are witnessing a coordinated attempt to further erode already flimsy community and environmental protections against the impacts of hardrock mining. Yes, we need to change U.S. mining policy, but not to loosen oversight. Communities across the country are living with mining pollution, and taxpayers – not the polluters – are too often paying for cleanup.
The General Mining Law that governs today’s mining industry was signed into law in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. It’s a relic of the Manifest Destiny era of pick-and-shovel miners, completely out of touch and out of scale with the landscape-level impacts of today’s mining operations. Too often these mines leave behind devastation that taxpayers must pay for and communities must endure.
The hardrock mining industry is the country’s largest source of toxic pollution, according to the Toxic Release Inventory, and it’s time they were held accountable for their pollution.
The United States has one of the most permissive hardrock mining regulatory regimes in the world. Unlike other extractive industries like coal, oil and gas, under the 1872 law, mining companies pay no royalties for the minerals they claim. This “finders, keepers” approach has funneled more than $300 billion in public wealth into private hands, often foreign-owned companies, since 1872.
American taxpayers already shoulder an enormous financial burden from hardrock mining. The EPA estimates the cost to clean up America’s hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines at more than $50 billion – a sum far in excess of the entire annual Superfund budget (which the Trump Administration has proposed to cut a further 30 percent).
We need a modern law that prioritizes American citizens over foreign corporations, similar to the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act introduced by U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, N.M.; Martin Heinrich, N.M.; Ron Wyden, Ore.; and Michael Bennet, Colo. Their bill would protect communities and the environment by balancing industrial-scale mining with other important land uses, such as water supplies, conservation, recreation and renewable energy development. Under the 1872 law, mining is considered the “highest and best use” of public land, trumping – literally – all other considerations.
Minerals are important. We absolutely need copper, for example, to make everything from pipes to wind turbines. But the free market allows supply to meet demand. China’s share of the copper market has absolutely no bearing on our national security. Even if it did, the Trump and Zinke orders do nothing to prevent foreign corporations from getting free and unfettered access to our minerals. In fact, a Chinese company recently purchased America’s only rare earth mine, Mountain Pass in San Bernardino County.
What is the problem we are trying to solve? Will “streamlining” make us more secure? The United States is already mining-friendly, according to the industry itself. The Fraser Institute’s 2016 Annual Survey of Mining Companies named Nevada and Arizona among the world’s “Top 10 Most Attractive Jurisdictions for Mining Investment.” And a report from the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that mine permitting takes an average of two years – similar to other major developed countries. Delays in the process are primarily due to the company, not the government.
The president and Secretary Zinke are wrong to direct our government to reduce community input in mining decisions. Our communities need up-to-date mining laws that protect our families, our water and our future.
— Jennifer Krill is executive director of Earthworks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development while promoting sustainable solutions.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.