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Sunday, January 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Ken Vanden Heuvel: Reform 1872 mining law to protect wilderness

Ken Vanden Heuvel

As fall gives way to winter, I find myself reminiscing about my summer adventures: road trips across state lines, long hikes to spectacular views and sleeping beneath the star-filled sky. The adventures I look back on most fondly are my trips to Montana and the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. Though I’m just a few hours from home, I feel as though I’ve entered uncharted territory when I visit the Cabinets, a wild landscape filled with grizzly bears, big cats, wolves and wolverines.

That is why I am so concerned about the two mining proposals set for the Cabinet Mountains region. The disaster at the Gold King Mine in Durango, Colorado, made national news in August, when 3 million gallons of toxic, sulfuric acid-laden water was accidentally released into the heavily used Animas River, shutting down everything from river recreation to irrigation in three states. The incident showed us the massive risks we take on with modern-day, industrial-scale mining, and the damage that we can unleash on our recreational sites, drinking water and agricultural lands. Knowing this, how can state and federal officials allow the beautiful Cabinet Mountains to be put at risk, too?

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the gist: One mining company with a blemished environmental record, and one mining company that has never operated a mine — Hecla Mining Co. and Mines Management Inc., respectively — have made proposals to build copper and silver mines underneath and adjacent to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. The Rock Creek Mine, run by Hecla Mining Co., would be on the southwest side, near Noxon and Trout Creek; Montana and Montanore, run by Mines Management Inc., to the northeast, closer to Libby.

If these two mines are built, many of the rivers, lakes and streams that provide clean water, sustain the fish and wildlife that we enjoy, and define the beautiful country where we live and work will be altered forever.

To keep the underground tunnels dry during mining, the mine will lower the water table in the area as much as 1,000 feet. This will result in less water available for rivers, wilderness lakes and fish, putting two of the most popular hiking destinations — Rock Lake and St. Paul Lake — at risk of being sucked dry. And the various toxins that leak from hard rock mines will likely contaminate the water that remains. The environmental impact statements for both mines estimated the Rock Creek Mine would release around 2,000 gallons of wastewater a minute and the Montanore Mine 500 gallons per minute. If you live downstream (yes, that’s you), your recreation meccas — like Lake Pend Oreille to name just one — outside of the Cabinet Mountains are at threat.

Now, back to my question: How can this happen?

As it turns out, under outdated laws that still govern the country, mining companies — even foreign ones — have all the right to make these proposals. According to the 1872 Mining Law, mining companies are permitted to take valuable hard rock material from public lands without having to pay any royalties to the American taxpayers. This nearly century-and-a-half-year-old law is still in effect, and it requires federal land managers to prioritize mining over all other land uses no matter what’s at stake.

We can’t let this out-of-date law allow corporations to pollute our precious Northwest landscape. The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness is only 4 percent of the Kootenai National Forest. Surely, we can protect this small refuge for future generations. These lands belong to everyone. It’s an injustice for them to be destroyed by a few carpet-bagging mining corporations looking to make a profit.

That is why I support the current legislation aimed to reform and modernize the 1872 Mining Law: the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015, which will require mining companies to pay a reclamation fee that will in turn fund cleanup and restoration projects across the country.

We cannot allow the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Clark Fork River and Lake Pend Oreille to be harmed. Reforming mining law is the best way to protect our beautiful Northwest backyard.

Ken Vanden Heuvel is a software engineer and a Spokane Mountaineers member from Newman Lake.

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