Hard Rock Mining Pollution

Stop Hard Rock Mines from Poisoning our Water!

For decades, large mining corporations have used two loopholes in the Clean Water Act to dump massive amounts of toxic tailings and other waste into America's most pristine streams, lakes, and wetlands. 

These are the waters from which we drink, in which our children swim, and which support our fish and wildlife such as grizzly bears in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

 

Before KensingtonAfter Kensington

Lower Slate Lake in Alaska, before and after the Kensington gold mine waste dumping

(photo credit on left: Irene Alexakos, and on right: Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation).

Reforming Hard Rock Mining

The hard rock mining industry is the single largest source of toxic waste and one of the most destructive industries in the country. Today's industrial-strength mining involves the blasting, excavating, and crushing of many thousands of acres of land and the use of huge quantities of toxic chemicals such as cyanide and sulfuric acid. The mines that produce our gold, silver, copper, and uranium are notorious for polluting adjacent streams, lakes, and groundwater with toxic by-products.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 40 percent of the watersheds in the western United States are contaminated by pollution from hard rock mines.

Toxic spills and acid mine drainage kill fish and wildlife, poison community drinking water, and pose serious health risks. Adding insult to injury, the American public receives very little in exchange for the use and destruction of the public lands where many mines are located. Most mine developers are owned by foreign corporations and, unlike other extractive industries, the hard rock mining industry does not pay royalties for minerals taken from federal public lands. What's more, the public is generally on the hook for the clean-up of abandoned mines. It is estimated that there are a half million abandoned mines across the country and that taxpayers will have to pay $32 - $72 billion to clean up the sites.

Working to Protect America's Waters from Hard Rock Mining

There is not a single solution to the problems posed by hard rock mining, but one obvious step is to stop mines from dumping their toxic wastes in our lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Open pit mines create an enormous amount of waste. It has become a common industry practice over the last 30 years for mines to dam up the nearest river valley and treat wetlands and streams impounded by the dam as a toxic waste dump.

Photo of rocky stream in Skagway, Alaska

In theory, the Clean Water Act should halt this destructive practice. One of the primary goals of the act was to prevent the use of the nation's waters as disposal sites for industrial wastes. Unfortunately, there are two "loopholes" in the regulations implementing the Clean Water Act that have allowed mine developers to circumvent the purpose of this critical law.

Controversial projects such as the proposed Pebble mine in Alaska, Montanore mine in Montana, PolyMet mine in northern Minnesota, Mt. Emmons mine in Colorado, Haile mine in South Carolina, and numerous existing mines in the West and Appalachia are relying on these loopholes to cut costs and justify extensive environmental damage. While discharging wastes into wetlands, streams and lakes may be convenient for mining companies, it is not a necessary way of doing business.

Almost 30 years ago, EPA found that mines could operate profitably without discharging their wastes into the nation's waters. The agency adopted a zero discharge standard for mines using cyanide and similar processes to extract metals such as gold and copper. That standard, if applied today, would prohibit open pit hard rock mines from "storing" their wastes in our waters.

Action Button

Urge the EPA and Army Corps to protect our nation's waters and wildlife by closing the mining loopholes in the Clean Water Act. >>

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