The mining industry has hatched a half-baked argument against reform of the 1872 law that has, for 137 years, given the industry the right to hollow out U.S. public lands in search of mineral wealth, pay no royalties for the privilege, and -- too often -- conveniently declare bankruptcy right before handing over their toxic landscape to the taxpayers.
"New burdens would jeopardize green energy."
That's how the industry argument is summarized in the Wall Street Journal today.
The industry's point is that mining products are needed to manufacture batteries, wind turbines, solar panels and all other clean energy technology. If you start charging mines a fee for the privilege of digging up public lands, then those industries will suffer, the U.S. mining industry will collapse, and we will be beholden to foreign interests for all our mined product needs.
So if we expect the same royalties from mining companies that we do from oil and gas companies, the terrorists win, U.S. jobs disappear and the Earth cooks.
Smells like a scare tactic from an industry that has, since the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, enjoyed carte blanche with U.S. lands. Oil and gas companies pay royalties on the wealth they extract from the lands we collectively own, but not precious metal miners. We do, however, pay for the mess 20 tons of polluted waste per gold ring, or about $50 billion for all U.S. mines, according to one estimate.
In fact, many of the biggest Superfund sites in the nation are mines that were abandoned only after the companies that created them had extracted everything -- and exhausted themselves, and their cash reserves (at least on paper). Remember the story about Picher, Okla., the toxic town fouled and undermined by massive lead and zinc mines? Mining companies don't even have to post bonds to cover the cost of future cleanups (though the Environmental Protection Agency is, after 25 years, seeking to tie up that loophole).
Earthjustice, which has argued for stricter mining laws, offers this instructive example:
"Perhaps the most far-reaching example of irresponsible mining operations is Asarco, which declared bankruptcy in 2005. The century-old mining and smelting company left behind 94 Superfund sites in 21 states, with a total cleanup cost estimated at more than $1 billion, far more than the $62 million trust the company set aside for cleanup.
"In Idaho, Asarco is among mining companies responsible for contamination spread across the 1,500-square-mile Coeur d'Alene River basin. Cleanup work is likely to last for generations. EPA has estimated the cost of the first 30 years at $359 million.
"The Idaho Conservation League is also watching prospective cleanup costs mount from 17 contaminated sites caused by phosphate mining."
There you have it: A company has benefited greatly from lax U.S. laws, but have you as a taxpayer?
If you want to feel bad for today's mining companies, at least blame the right bogeyman: old mining companies. The new royalties would be used to pay for the cleanup at abandoned toxic mines.
This is the list of the U.S. metal mines responsible for the most pollution in the last reported year. Four of the 10, including the top three, are owned or co-owned by companies based outside the U.S. Note that total pounds of pollution doesn't necessarily correlate with toxicity, since small concentrations of highly toxic compounds can have a disproportionately large health impact. (Also note that several of these facilities rank among the most highly polluting, in any industry, and several rank among the biggest emitters of mercury, which can be a potent neurotoxin.)
Teck-NANA Red Dog Operations Mine, the world's largest producer of zinc concentrate, is situated in a remote outpost in Alaska's Northwest Arctic Borough. Opened in 1989, the open pit mine is owned by Teck, a Canadian company with mines in Canada, the U.S., Chile and Peru, and NANA, an Alaskan Native corporation. The closest city is Kotzebue (Pop. 3,237), 82 miles away, and the mine's only connection to the outside world is via air, or an access road leading to a port on the Chukchi Sea, where zinc and lead are shipped for smelting elsewhere. In 2007, the mine owners sought permission to expand the mine and that expansion is currently open to public comment. In 2008, the company agreed to settle a Clean Water Act case and build a 52-mile pipeline to discharge mining wastes in the ocean, rather than in Red Dog Creek.
Rio Tinto Kennecott Utah Copper Mine Concentrators & Power Plant, the world's most prolific copper mine, is located in Copperton, Utah, just outside metro Salt Lake City. Its owner, the British-Australian international mining giant Rio Tinto Group boasts that "Since the original Utah Copper Company began mining the low-grade copper ore in Bingham Canyon (in 1906), the mine has become a huge open-pit that has produced more copper than any mine in the world, is one of the engineering marvels of the world, and is more than 3/4 of a mile deep and more than 2 3/4 miles wide at the top. And it is still growing." Indeed, it's been designated a National Historic Landmark. Kennecott plans to extend the mine's life past 2018, when it is currently slated to close. Rio Tinto has recently been accused, by China, of running an international fraud that cost the country $100 billion, a charge it denies.
Barrick Goldstrike Mine, which it's owner, Barrick calls "the most prolific gold mining district in the Western Hemisphere," is located 27 miles from Carlin, Nev. It was opened in 1996 and now produces more than 1 million ounces of gold annually. Barrick, based in Canada, is sometimes called the largest gold-mining company in the world. It's foray into Papua New Guinea led to the discovery, during pre-mining environmental studies, recently led to the discovery of 50 new species. The company has been criticized in some countries by indigenous people.
Newmont Twin Creeks Mine, one of five gold mines owned or jointly owned by Newmont Mining Corp in the same region of Nevada, is located 35 miles from Golconda. Newmont is one of the world's largest gold mining companies, and is based in Colorado.
Hecla Greens Creek Mine, an underground silver, zinc, gold and lead mine near Juneau, Alaska, is owned by a subsidiary of Hecla Mining Co., the oldest U.S.-based precious metal mining company in North America (established 1891). It is the sixth-largest silver mine in the world. Hecla is based in Idaho.
Barrick Ruby Hill Mine, another Barrick gold mine, is an open-pit, heap leach mine located just outside Eureka, Nev.
Newmont Carlin Mine is another of Newmont Mining Corp.'s mines in the Elko Trend gold desposit in Nevada. This one is near Elko.
Doe Run Buick Mine and Mill, in Boss, Mo., is part of what owner Doe Run calls the "largest integrated lead" production in the Western Hemisphere. Based in St. Louis, The Doe Run Co. is owned by New York holding company, the Renco Group. It's unclear how much of the pollution from this facility comes from the mine, and how much from the lead recycling plant at the same location.
Newmont Lone Tree Mine is another of the mines owned or co-owned by Newmont Mining Corp. in the same region of Nevada, near Valmy.
For a complete list, use the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory.
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