In recent months, President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE and Interior Secretary Zinke have moved to gut bedrock environmental laws in order to accelerate the mining of so-called “critical minerals.” They claim America is over-reliant on foreign countries for these minerals and that fast-tracking permits for domestic mines will strengthen our national security.
It is either nonsense or a deliberate deception: a trojan horse built out of toothpicks and duct tape. The administration is using a national security rationale as cover for a gift to the mining industry, proposing further erosion of 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 — too often are paying for cleanup.
The General Mining Act 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.
It’s time mining companies took responsibility for their pollution, but they won’t go along quietly. For decades the mining lobby has blocked much-needed 1872 reform and any other attempt to strengthen public oversight of the industry.
Miners have a sweet deal in the United States, which has one of the most permissive regulatory regimes in the world. Unlike other extractive industries such as 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 shoulder an enormous financial burden from hardrock mining, our largest toxic polluter according to the Toxic Release Inventory. The EPA estimates the cost to clean up America’s hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines at over $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 western Senators Udall (NM), Heinrich (NM), Wyden (OR) and Bennett (CO). 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.
I’m not saying that some minerals aren’t important to our country. For example, we need copper to make everything from pipes to wind turbines. But the free market for these minerals 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, California’s Mountain Pass.
So let’s ask ourselves: what is the problem we are trying to solve? Will “streamlining” make us more secure? The United States is 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.” 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 — and that delays in the process are primarily due to the companies, 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. Follow her on Twitter @jenkrill.