Mining Claims Rise Near Western Cities
By Judy Pasternak
Fueled by higher metal prices, the upswing in stakes on federal land spurs calls for more local say on industry encroachment.
Washington - Propelled by soaring prices for gold, copper, uranium and other metals, new mining claims on federal land are surging near heavily populated areas in the West, according to an analysis of federal records.
More than 16,000 such claims have been staked in the last five years, including nearly 1,700 in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, said a report released Tuesday by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
The new activity brings the total of active claims within five miles of Western population centers to nearly 51,600, the report said. The total number of mining claims has doubled in the last five years, from 207,540 in 2003 to 414,228 in January 2008.
Mining claims on Western federal land are governed by a law passed in 1872 and signed by President Grant. But since then, the frontier has given way to suburbs, resorts and retirement communities, and the law provides little recourse for local, state or tribal governments if they object to the encroachment of an industry that could bring open pits, acid drainage, and pollution of water and air close to their borders.
"The growing West is on a collision course with a global land rush for minerals," said Dusty Horwitt, senior public lands analyst for the environmental group.
Mining accounts for more Superfund toxic cleanup sites than any other industry and requires vast amounts of water for the processing of metal ore at a time when water shortages are plaguing the West.
The National Mining Assn. estimates that fewer than 5% of claims are actually developed into mining operations. Still, the prospect of mines in proximity to settled communities "is a concern," said Bill Wicker, the Democratic spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The issue is expected to be "part of the larger debate" about reform of the mining law, Wicker said. The House passed a revised mining law in November that expands federal agencies' authority to reject claims, and the committee has been holding hearings for a Senate version likely to be introduced this spring.
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Assn., calls the cry for reform "disingenuous."
"There's nowhere in the world that mining has so many restrictions as in the U.S.," Popovich said. "Do the green activists want to degrade the environment elsewhere so they can preserve ski lodges here?"
He added that many American communities may welcome new mining and the jobs that the industry would bring.
Arizona, Utah and Nevada have the most claims near residential centers, the report said. Las Vegas and the Phoenix-Mesa region each have more than 5,000 claims within five miles. The greatest increase in claim staking has come in Utah and Colorado, where "a substantial portion" of the new activity is intended for uranium mining, in response to growing demand for nuclear power, the report said. Uranium presents special hazards because it is radioactive in addition to being a toxic heavy metal.
The original 1872 law was designed to encourage fortune-seekers to move West. "Well, now they have," noted Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, "and now the mining claims are literally swallowing up the West."
In California, active mining claims have increased by almost 20%. Millions of Californians in 293 cities or towns are within five miles of the current crop of mining claims.
The report's maps show 290 claims in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area, mostly in the Angeles National Forest. Mining claims within five miles of Big Bear Lake or Big Bear City increased from 270 in 2003 to 491 in 2008.
The claims are held by a mix of mining operators and speculators. One company, A-Able Plumbing Inc., holds 237 claims in California, with 176 of those in San Bernardino County, Horwitt said.
More than 1,000 claims have been staked in the Sierra foothills east of Bakersfield and almost 500 in metropolitan Sacramento, including historic mining areas that have become high-tech employment centers.
"It only takes a handful of claims turning into mines to turn into a huge problem for a community," Horwitt said, citing the experience of Crested Butte, a Colorado ski resort 230 miles southwest of Denver that is surrounded by federal land.
Crested Butte officials are concerned about a proposed molybdenum mine in the Gunnison National Forest just above their town. Mayor Alan Bernholtz testified to the Senate energy committee in January that the tourism industry would suffer and that the watershed from which the town draws its drinking supplies would be affected. Under the mining law, the Forest Service is not allowed to deny a claim on such grounds.
The federal government has a few ways to keep a claim from becoming a mine. For one, the U.S. can buy out a claim-holder. In 1996, Horwitt said, the government spent $65 million to prevent development of mining claims near Yellowstone National Park. Or the validity of a claim can be challenged, an expensive and time-consuming process.
In rare instances, the secretary of the Interior can void the claim. Three days before George W. Bush's inauguration in 2001, President Clinton's Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, denied a California claim because it was on property considered sacred by the Quechan tribe. Babbitt's replacement, Gale Norton, rescinded the denial by the end of that year.
"State, local and tribal governments must be given a much larger role in the determination as to whether mining development can proceed," Bernholtz told the committee.
"We're not saying there shouldn't be mining," Horwitt said. "We're just saying there should be protection for those that don't want it."