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Scars That May Never Heal

By Jackie Giuliano Ph.D.

We wait in the darkness! Come, all ye who listen, Help in our night journey: Now no sun is shining; Now no star is glowing;v Come show us the pathway: The night is not friendly; The moon has forgot us, We wait in the darkness! -- Iroquois prayer

Critics of environmental regulation often complain that there must be a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. They will claim that industry is being strangled by overzealous attempts to protect wilderness and small birds of little value.

While these criticisms are being voiced, often by our political leaders, children sicken and die and the immune systems of nearly every woman, man and child in the country are impacted in some way by the toxic load that surrounds us.

Yet the industry that is the largest producer of toxic hazardous waste in the United States is virtually unregulated, governed by a law that was written 126 years ago.

The mining industry in the United States has it all. The General Mining Law of 1872 grants miners on public lands the absolute right to mine. But the law contains no standards for mine operations, no requirement that mine sites ever be cleaned up, and no requirements for holding mining operations financially responsible for the damage they create. This antiquated law and the political clout of this $60 billion a year industry has allowed hardrock mines in the U.S. to be exempt from most federal hazardous waste laws.

You do not hear about this much in the news, but tens of thousands of mines exist in the U.S. and the Mineral Policy Center says that there are another 557,000 abandoned hardrock mines that are causing excessive environmental damage as toxic chemicals and other mine waste leeches into the groundwater. Hardrock minerals include gold, silver, iron, copper, uranium, molybdenum, asbestos, and many others.

It is so difficult for the average citizen to believe, in this age where there is constant criticism by business leaders about excessive environmental regulation, that one of the largest industries in the world is unregulated.

It will come as no surprise that the mining industry stays relatively quiet about its privileges. Mining companies have no interest in having the 1872 law updated.

The huge amounts of money that pour into the states that have mines keeps Congressional representatives firmly on the side of the mine operators.

The revenue lost to the taxpayers of this country is enormous. I believe that I can say with all certainty that many environmental and social problems in our nation - and probably the world - could be brought a lot closer to being solved with the money that is lost to mine owners. The 1872 law gives any person (even a foreign corporation is defined as a person) who proves the existence of a valuable mineral deposit, the right to purchase public land for five dollars an acre or less!

And an even more amazing provision of the law says that no royalty is required for the value of minerals taken from public lands.

To show you the incredible economic folly of this process, look at one mining company, American Barrick. In 1994, it was granted a "patent" (what the 1872 law calls a purchase) to 1,038 acres of federal land in Nevada. At five dollars per acre, this means that American Barrick paid $5,190 for the land. During the life of the mine, $10 billion in minerals were extracted and not one penny of that fortune came back to the taxpayers.

To make matters worse, the owner of the patent is not even required to mine the land! Over 3.5 million acres of land has been transferred to private individuals and corporations who claimed the mineral rights under the 1872 law, but built golf courses, hunting lodges, hotels and housing subdivisions!

But although the people of the U.S. get no economic benefit from the wealth removed from the mines, we do get incredible environmental devastation. Permission to mine is NEVER denied, no matter how fragile the ecosystem or how near to human activities the mine is. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service believe that the 1872 law prohibits them from denying any claim.

Sixty-six hardrock mining sites are Superfund sites, waiting for taxpayer money to reclaim them. The perpetrators of the toxic problems have long since moved on.

Gone are the days of men with pans of soil and water, searching for the elusive gold. Today, mining is done with very toxic acids and other chemicals, and the pick has been replaced with huge machines that dig up 10 tons with a single scoop.

Over 50 billion tons of untreated, unreclaimed mine waste cover public and private lands across the U.S. Toxic levels of heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, and cadmium often wind up in ground and surface waters, destroying stream-side and aquatic life.

Millions of birds die each year as they land in open pits of toxic liquid waste. And countless children, women and men are believed to have been poisoned by contaminated groundwater and air.

There are things you can do. The resources below will help you take action to stop this scarring of our world.

This issue is a prime example of how challenging it is to live today. All the things we assume, all the things we have trusted, all that we take for granted must be re-examined. We cannot wait for a story to make it to the evening news before we take action. We have to train ourselves to look around and see what does not make sense. We have to train ourselves to know when actions that are for self-interest must be replaced with actions that will preserve our world for future generations. We must insist that those who control the politics and the economy in our world stop looking at everything as a commodity.

Can there really be any other choice? What scars the land scars our souls.

RESOURCES

1. Congress must be influenced to change the 1872 law. Contact your Congressional representatives and tell them to take seriously the mining law reform legislation that is before them. The links below will give you the information you need. If you know your Zip code, you can find your Congressperson at http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.html or you can search by state at http://www.webslingerz.com/jhoffman/congress-email.html You can also find your representatives at http://congress.nw.dc.us/innovate/index.html

2. An excellent activists guide to mine law reform can be found at http://www.teleport.com/~cee/

3. Learn about mining law reform at http://www.defenders.org/mining-1.html

4. Read a sample letter written to Congress by the California Native Plant Society at http://www.northcoast.com/~cnps/issmine.htm

5. The Mineral Policy Institute at http://www.mineralpolicy.org/ will tell you much about the issues.

6. Environment Law in the Public Interest actually stopped a mine from opening in the Black Hills forest. Learn how they did it at http://www.enviroweb.org/elaw/Newslett/letter16.htm

7. Learn about the issues. Seek out books on the subject. A good source for used (and new) books is Powells Bookstore in Portland, Oregon at http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/associate?assoc_id=212 where you will find a wonderful alternative to the massive chain bookstores taking over the market.

Visit the Healing Our World Archive and check out the many resource links in past articles.

This Healing Our World article appear courtesy of Jackie Giuliano (copyright 1999)
and is printed with the permission of the
Environment News Service.


Jackie Giuliano, Ph.D., can be found in Venice, California, wondering what else he doesnt know about. He is a Professor of Environmental Studies for Antioch University, Los Angeles, and the University of Phoenix Southern California Campuses. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his web site at http://deepteaching.com


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