Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
Mining Activists Dig in at Home

by Marie Dolcini

Of all extractive industries, mining is the most unregulated and environmentally destructive. And its impacts don't stop at the visual blight of waste heaps, abandoned craters and scarred hillsides. Mining operations are the source of some of the most hazardous and enduring kinds of pollution worldwide and can significantly endanger the health of surrounding communities and wildlife.

Today, most mining operators in the United States aren't hardscrabble, pick-wielding, burrow-befriending loners, but multinational corporations. Nevertheless, the laws that govern mining for hardrock minerals (gold, silver, copper) on public lands have changed little since the days of President Ulysses S. Grant. In particular, the 1872 Mining Law still allows federal land to be purchased for as little as $2.50 per acre by anyone interested in pursuing a mining claim.

But perpetuating such frontier nostalgia has a higher price. While the 124-year-old law was originally intended to encourage settlement by the independent 19th century prospector, today it amounts to millions of dollars in lost royalties and federal giveaways each year and millions more in taxpayer-borne cleanup costs. The Mineral Policy Center, a nonprofit advocate of environmental and fiscal mining reforms, calculates that over the past three years, mining companies have paid taxpayers just over $16,000 for public land containing over $15.3 billion in minerals, while mining- related public action committees contributed millions of dollars to congressional campaigns.

"This outdated, outrageous law is the last remnant of the great barbecue of public lands," said Stan Haye, Sierra Club California/Nevada mining committee chair, of the 1872 Mining Act. "It needs to be scrapped now."

Supporters of mining reform agree, but have consistently failed to kill this major federal handout. So they're digging in at home and organizing local resistance to the environmentally scandalous status quo.

Haye exemplifies the Sierra Club's new breed of mining reform activist in that he recognizes that only part of the answer lies in Washington. Most of his work focuses on mining's impact in the California and Nevada desert, where large quantities of scarce underground water are diverted for processing ore. "It hasn't been easy," said Haye, "but we're setting new standards in desert mining, including compliance with existing law and revegetation for the long term." And while Haye and a handful of other activists may be outspent by powerful outside interests, they're bringing oversight and accountability to local operations.

To the southeast, Sue McIntosh is setting long-overdue mining standards in mineral-rich New Mexico. As director of the Rio Grande Chapter's Mining Oversight and Control Project, she and 20 other activists are taking the concept of citizen oversight to new heights. Under a program known as Operation Guard Dog, activists encourage local residents to "adopt a mine" as industry monitors. "It's really an 'adopt-a-watershed' project," said McIntosh, who leads exposť-oriented hikes into mining sites so citizens can see mining's environmental impacts first-hand. "And when things go wrong, our team of volunteers will come off the porch and make sure things get done right."

McIntosh stressed that those interested in becoming "guard dogs" require only the desire to learn -- and it's already paying dividends. In less than a year, project volunteers are monitoring most major mines in the state. Now they're focusing on mines that don't get a lot of attention -- like the Continental copper mine, whose owners are threatening to add four new pits near the historic Hispanic and Native American community of Fierro.

"We already know there is water contamination from the enormous amounts of heavy metals that are in the runoff," said McIntosh. "And if the mine expands, it will mean more water usage, further degradation and would destroy a historic cemetery, church and several prehistoric Apache sites."

McIntosh is leading the Club's participation in the Fierro Preservation Association, a citizens' group committed to protecting the town's cultural resources. "Our alliance is important because many association members work in the mine and believe there are potential health hazards," she said.

Mining project volunteers are also producing a citizens' mining manual for distribution this fall. Intended as a layperson's easy reference guide, it includes an overview of water problems and current law and lists public resources and guidelines for obtaining legal assistance. "Huge corporations can be intimidating," said McIntosh, "and this tool can help turn people into mining activists." In western Pennsylvania, where coal is king, Wyona Coleman proves her activist mettle by taking on mining corporations that operate on private lands. She's working to protect the neighboring town of Washington from being literally undermined by a new and profoundly dangerous technology.

"Longwall mining" for coal deep below the surface is quickly replacing surface stripmining as the extraction method of choice. While the technique can produce in one day what used to take a week, it also causes extensive water loss of springs and wells, dries up streams and damages overlying structures. At present, there are no punitive measures to compel mines to minimize or prevent such damage. What's more, the law that sets standards for longwall mining, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, was written to regulate stripmining and doesn't adequately address deep mining impacts.

After consulting with numerous citizen groups protesting longwall operation permits throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, Coleman helped organize the Tri-State Citizens Mining Network. Today it works to increase monitoring, review permits and propose new state regulations. "We're following every angle we can to hold the line," said Coleman. "And that includes informing citizens about mining problems, helping them get involved in the public debate on the necessity for additional controls and taking it to the courts if we have to."

While Club mining reformers still consider the 1872 Mining Law the fattest turkey to shoot at, these largely self- taught pioneers are bearing down locally to realize change -- wherever they live. "Unless regulatory agencies hear from the public," said McIntosh, "they'll just hear from industry."

For more information: Contact Stan Haye at (619) 878-2244, Sue McIntosh at (505) 983-4254, Wyona Coleman at (412) 785- 7861, Kathryn Hohmann in the Club's Washington, D.C., office at (202) 6757916 or Drusha Mayhue, chair of the Mining Waste Rock Task Force, at (713) 864-6168; e-mail <waste_rock@juno.com>.


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