WASHINGTON - December 14 - Driven by soaring prices for uranium and other metals, and aided by an antiquated federal law, in the last four years mining interests have staked new claims on 2.3 million acres of Western public lands an area larger than Yellowstone National Park.
A three-month Environmental Working Group (EWG) investigation of millions of federal records found that mining claims registered with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rose from 220,265 at the end of 2002 to 324,551 in September 2006, a 47 percent increase. Hundreds of new claims are within five miles of the Grand Canyon, and many more are encroaching on other treasured places.
Many of the claims are for potential uranium mines, reflecting the worldwide resurgence of interest in nuclear power. The price of uranium, used to fuel nuclear reactors, has risen by more than two-thirds this year, and has more than tripled since the end of 2003.
According to BLM's current data, uranium mining interests are among the largest claimholders in at least seven states Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. When EWG last analyzed mining records in May 2004, no uranium interests were among the largest claimholders in the West.
EWG's interactive online website, at www.ewg.org, makes it possible for the first time to see satellite images of the physical impacts of mining. The images show not only the impacts of existing mines, but where mining may occur in the future.
The site marks the most extensive use to date of Google's mapping technology by a national environmental organization. Mines and claims can be viewed with satellite photos provided by Google Maps, and visitors can view existing mines on 3-D terrain maps through a feature that downloads the locations into Google Earth.
"Mining has historically played a prominent part in the Western economy, and once again we're in a boom cycle," said EWG energy analyst Dusty Horwitt. "But federal mining rules are stuck in the era of the Old West. It's time to bring our mining laws into the 21st century."
Under the 1872 Mining Law, still in effect, companies can stake claims for as little as $1 per acre. Unlike the oil and gas, timber and coal-mining industries, metals mining companies pay no royalties for extracting public resources from federal land, nor do they pay into a fund for cleanup of abandoned mines. Companies also can receive a tax break for up to 22 percent of the metal they extract.
EWG's investigation seeks to raise awareness about reforming the 1872 Mining Law so that mining companies pay taxpayers a fair price for use of our land, clean up the pollution they leave behind and leave treasured places untouched.
In the new Congress, legislation introduced by Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-WV) would help address many of the shortcomings of U.S. mining law. Among other provisions, the bill would require mining companies to pay an eight percent royalty on the metal they extract, create a fund for abandoned mine cleanup, implement specific reclamation standards, prohibit mines that would require perpetual water treatment and put treasured places off-limits to mining. Legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-WI) would close the tax break for metal mining and direct a portion of the savings to be used for abandoned mine cleanup.