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The Hazards of Mining

Humans, it is said, differ from other animals in that we can read and write and therefore have a sense of the past. We differ in many other ways, of course, including the fact that we've found uses for -- become addicted to -- hundreds of minerals that exist on and beneath the earth's surface. Civilization as we know it would simply not exist without steel, oil, and hundreds more metals and fuels.

Unfortunately, there's a terrible price to be paid for the wrenching of these materials from the ground, and payment has been deferred too long. By one estimate, mining produces twice as much hazardous garbage as all other activities combined, and too often it's the environment that suffers.

Take one example: In the American West, there are a half-million abandoned mines that once produced gold, silver, and copper. Many of these old mines are draining lethal concentrations of acid into nearby streams. A few have been cleaned up. It's an expensive and difficult process. Meanwhile, new mines open and efforts to rewrite the archaic law that governs mining on federal land -- passed in 1872 -- are continually rebuffed by mining concerns that want no interference in their profit-making.

Earthjustice has had some success in this area, forcing a major reform of placer (streambed) mining in Alaska, blocking the reopening and expansion of an old mine on the border of Yellowstone Naitonal Park, and persuading a company seeking to mine in the California desert to invent a new way of mining and ensure reclamation of the site once the ore is exhausted.