When a Canadian mining company pushed to build an open-pit cyanide-leach gold mine on Buckhorn Mountain in the Okanogan Highlands, I – and local residents – were outraged. A relic from Manifest Destiny, the 1872 Mining Act still treats mining like the “highest and best use” of public land. Maybe that worked 146 years ago, but not now. And as a forest supervisor, I’ve seen firsthand how open-pit mining can permanently devastate communities and special places.
Fortunately, the environmental review process verified what the local community kept insisting: building the mine underground – while not perfect – drastically reduced the overall impact on them, the land, water and wildlife.
The Buckhorn Mine teaches us that an informed, motivated public, using sound science, can protect their community and environment from the negative impacts of hardrock mining. And as many Eastern Washington collaborative efforts show, we know how to balance environmental protection and economic development – and get things done! Apparently, the House of Representatives hasn’t figured that out yet. Instead they are trying to silence the public in decision-making on public lands.
Two weeks ago, the House passed a national defense funding bill, with a catch. If it becomes law, any proposal to dig up a “critical” mineral would enjoy an expedited permitting process, minimal environmental review, and no public input. Worse, they redefine “critical minerals” to include almost any rock: even gravel! Now it’s the Senate’s turn to draft their version of the defense bill, and there’s already a similar rider on the table.
Of all industries, hardrock mining should be the last to receive special treatment. It’s the nation’s top toxic polluter, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Too often these mines leave behind devastation that taxpayers must pay for and communities endure for generations.
Misguided lawmakers are using the guise of national security to gut bedrock environmental and public involvement laws. They claim fast-tracking domestic mine permits will make us less reliant on foreign countries. But the Critical and Strategic Materials Defense Stockpiling Act already ensures we have those critical materials for national security.
Let’s be clear: this has nothing to do with national defense. This is a pork-barrel rider for the mining industry, and a slap in the face to the American public. Created behind closed doors, the “critical minerals” amendment was buried in this unrelated must-pass bill because it couldn’t stand scrutiny in the light of day.
The EPA estimates the current clean-up costs of the worst abandoned mines at over $50 billion. So besides giving hardrock mining companies free minerals, we pay to clean up their pollution, with taxes and/or our health.
Does permitting take “too long”? The (nonpartisan) U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that mine permitting takes an average of two years – similar to other major developed countries. So throughout the West, we find nasty examples of abandoned mines that require water treatment in perpetuity – paid for by taxpayers, not the company that destroyed the water quality. Two years of study to protect communities for generations sounds like a wise expenditure!
Unlike coal, oil and gas, mining companies pay no royalties. This “finders keepers” approach has funneled over $300 billion in public wealth into private hands, often foreign-owned companies, since 1872. So yes, changes are necessary. But not to loosen oversight and silence those impacted.
We need a modernized mining law that prioritizes American citizens’ well-being over foreign corporations’ profits. Sen. Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Grijalva, D-Ariz., have both crafted sound bills that would protect people and the land while ensuring communities benefit from both jobs and a healthy environment. Likewise, ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee Sen. Cantwell worked with Sen. Murkowski, R-Alaska, to craft a bipartisan approach to critical minerals policy. I trust that Sen. Cantwell, along with Sen. Murray, will help remove this dangerous amendment, with our encouragement. Then we can look to the future, and the long-overdue reform of the 1872 mining law.
All interests are served when all interests have a voice in the process.
Gloria Flora is a former forest supervisor for national forests in Montana and Nevada and a member of Northeast WA Forestry Coalition. She lives in Colville.