The General Mining Act of 1872 was designed to encourage settlement and colonization of the American West, in part to drive out the Indigenous peoples who had already lived there for tens of thousands of years. Today, 150 years after its enactment, this law has not changed significantly and continues to prioritize the hard rock mining industry above all other uses and interests, including the rights and the perspectives of affected tribes and communities.
As president of the Hualapai Tribal Council, I understand how this remnant of a law directly affects indigenous communities like mine, where exploratory drilling for a lithium mining project in the Big Sandy River Valley of the western Arizona, has been allowed in recent years with minimal tribal consultation. Lithium is in high demand as electric vehicle sales surge and the Biden administration pushes to reduce carbon emissions, but we must not replace one dirty industry with another. Additionally, the Big Sandy Lithium Project threatens our water security in the face of severe and ongoing drought, desecrating the fragile desert landscape and continuing the centuries-old tradition of the federal government to encroach on our sacred and cultural sites.
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This predicament, which is common for tribes and communities across the American West with a history of hard rock mining or current activity, could be resolved if the federal government takes meaningful steps to reform the outrageously outdated rules. that govern this industry.
The Mining Law of 1872 has long awaited an overhaul. However, administrative reforms would be an important first step with tangible benefits for tribal and local communities affected by mining. Specifically, the Bureau of Land Management could rewrite the rules that implement the Mining Act of 1872 and clarify the agency’s responsibility to deny mining proposals that could result in unnecessary or undue degradation of treaty rights and rights. other rights to fish, hunt, gather or otherwise use public lands. under the Federal Lands Management Policy Act (FLPMA). This would allow land managers to deny mining activity on land already in use or on which communities rely.
Failure to address this issue is a threat to our environment, public health, and very existence in water-strapped communities like ours. More than 90% of the major copper and gold mines in the United States have polluted the water and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 40% of the headwaters of the western United States watersheds have been polluted by mining. This pollution can persist for thousands of years – long after mines have closed and companies have left, requiring continued funding for monitoring and water treatment to protect communities downstream from the dangers of waste. mining.
Taxpayers are also being cheated under the current system, with the EPA estimating the backlog of cleanup costs for hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines in the United States to be between $20 billion and $54 billion. This is significantly more than the total annual budget of the federal Superfund program, and taxpayers are potentially responsible for billions of additional dollars in cleanup costs at active mines. There are state and federal grants to help cover these costs, but funding is volatile and barely sufficient.
Although reform legislation has floundered for years in Congress without making much headway, U.S. Representative Raúl Grijalva is to be commended for championing legislative efforts to protect tribal interests and improve tribal consultation in mining projects, and to establish a federal royalty for mining companies and a funding mechanism to clean up polluted mine sites and rehabilitate damaged areas. The bill would also end patenting, which currently allows mining companies to lock up public lands that could be open for other uses.
Such legislation should be a priority for every member of Congress, but until we can update the Mining Act of 1872, the Biden administration must take action and reform hard rock mining rules by under the BLM. This is the first step towards a fairer, more equitable and more climate secure future for tribal and local communities struggling with the financial and social costs of hard rock mining.
The metal mining industry is the main source of toxic pollution in our country. Without accountability or regulation for this industry, the onus falls on tribal and local governments to pay for the impacts. Legislative reform must be our long-term goal, but in the meantime, BLM must modernize industry rules, to protect our cultural and sacred sites, our water resources, our health, our livelihoods and our quality of life. life.
Damon Clarke is the President of the Hualapai Tribal Council and contributor to Western Leaders Voices, a Western Leaders Network program that helps amplify the voices of elected tribal, local, and state leaders on conservation issues in the West.