The New West: Mine Claims Crowd Booming Cities

The New West: Mine Claims Crowd Booming Cities

Soaring prices for gold, copper, and uranium have sparked an explosion of mining claims that are encroaching on booming cities, sprawling suburbs, small towns and rural recreation havens throughout the western United States, according to a new analysis of federal records.

At a March 1st telebriefing with the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, Environmental Working Group (EWG) released an analysis of the most recent data from the Bureau of Land Management and found that metal mining claims within 5 miles of cities and towns throughout the West jumped from 35,350 to more than 51,000 between 2003 and 2008 — an increase of more than 46 percent. Interactive Google maps showing all active claims near Western cities and towns are available on the Environmental Working Group site:

As the Senate prepares this week to consider reform legislation, EWG's analysis shows some of the nation's largest and fastest-growing metropolitan areas are on a collision course with the mining boom. Mining interests have staked more than 5,800 claims within five miles of residential areas in metro Las Vegas and 5,131 claims within 5 miles of populated places in the greater Phoenix metro area. Hundreds of claims are within five miles of residential areas in metropolitan Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Denver.

In 2006, hardrock metals mining was the No. 1 source of toxic pollution in the United States, generating 1.22 billion pounds of toxic chemical waste, the majority of which was dumped into the environment near the mine. Mining has been the nation's No. 1 toxic polluter for nine straight years, ever since reporting has been required.

New claims may be good news in some mining communities, but may not be welcome or expected elsewhere. Some historic mining communities that have been transformed by the tourist and high-tech economy of the new West, may be leary of a resurgence of mining. The resort town of Crested Butte, Colo., which has opposed a massive molybdenum-mining proposal on nearby public land, for example, has 671 mining claims within 5 miles of the city limits. Elsewhere, the City of Boise, Idaho, has raised concerns with the possible effects of a mine proposal upstream of its drinking water supply.

As metals prices rise, it is increasingly probable that some of the 52,000 active claims will be developed into mines. This prospect is made much more likely by the nation's antiquated 1872 Mining Law, which does not provide citizens or government officials clear authority to stop a mine from being developed on valid claims, regardless of the importance of the area for other uses or the potential impacts of the mining operation. Until federal mining law is amended, the only sure option for protection in such instances has been the buyout of claims.

"The pressures of global markets have already pushed uranium mining along the rim of the Grand Canyon. If this worldwide demand for precious metals continues we could very well see toxic mining operations not far from schools, parks and playgrounds in residential communities throughout the west," said Dusty Horwitt, public lands analyst at EWG. "The only way to make sure people in communities across the west are protected from looming large scale mining operations is for Congress to overhaul the nation's antiquated federal mining law."

The report, released in conjunction with the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, documents the reach of the current mining boom as momentum for mining reform is building in Congress. Last fall, the House passed a comprehensive reform bill authored by Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia. On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will hold a hearing on mining as part of its effort to draft a Senate reform bill.

"Hardrock mining has real and measurable impacts across the West," said Jane Danowitz, Director of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining. "The Senate should act quickly to put us on a new path where mining is balanced with other uses of public lands and western communities have a meaningful voice in protecting their surroundings."

Listen to the briefing of the report release on the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining Web site.