Federal Agencies Urged to Update Mining Rules, Halt Industry Handouts
Tribal, conservation, and community groups representing millions of people filed formal comments with federal agencies today calling for more protective hardrock mining rules and legislation, including requiring mineral recycling to protect people and the environment.
Today’s comments are in response to a request for public input from the federal Interagency Working Group on mining reform, which is tasked with recommending updates to federal mining laws and policies, and creating a more sustainable supply chain for all products with minerals. The organizations also called for the Interior Department to grant a petition filed in September to improve and modernize hardrock mining oversight on public lands.
“Times have changed since the General Mining Act of 1872,” said Chairman Terry Rambler of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. “At that time, no one considered the impacts of mines on water, the air, the environment, or even people. Today water is in scarce supply and we know that mining toxins in the air and water lead to cancer, and usually devastate all living creatures. Some mines have destroyed sacred and historical sites. Yet understandably we also need mines for the resources they produce and the global economy. For these reasons, mining must be reformed to be responsible and sustainable. The Interagency Working Group on Mining Reform is a step in the right direction, and we look forward to further consultation during the rulemaking process.”
Mining reform has taken on new urgency as Congress considers fossil fuel expansion legislation that would also favor mining interests proposed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in exchange for his support of the Inflation Reduction Act. According to a leaked draft, the bill would cut community input from the permitting process for mining projects and fossil fuel infrastructure. Fast-tracking new mining projects threatens to pollute drought-stricken waters with toxic runoff.
“Our sacred places deserve more respect than a broken 150-year-old mining law that does nothing to prevent their destruction,” said Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris, Jr. “Our Nation has been fighting to preserve our history and culture from the Rosemont Mine and other threats for many years. The Interagency Working Group can and should, at a minimum, recommend adoption of hardrock mining regulations that require the free, prior, and informed consent of impacted Tribal communities moving forward.”
Groups recommended that Interior improve enforcement of existing mining laws and that the working group helps implement President Biden’s promise to address historic injustices stemming from mining operations.
“The mining industry has been allowed to run roughshod over public lands and communities for generations,” said Allison Melton, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These common-sense changes are necessary to protect people and the environment as we bring about a just renewable energy transition.”
The groups’ suggestions include:
- Respect the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples and requiring their consent for any government actions in the mineral supply chain that may affect their community, lands or cultural resources.
- Protect public and Indigenous peoples’ ancestral lands from harm to important environmental historical, cultural, biodiverse or other resources.
- Require the Bureau of Land Management to verify mining rights.
- Create a leasing regime for hardrock minerals, as proposed in the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act.
- Incentivize a circular minerals economy — recycling and reuse — to help satisfy demand in the clean energy supply chain.
“We face an existential climate crisis and must move quickly to convert our infrastructure to support low-carbon energy, but this century’s mining must not repeat the mistakes of the past,” said Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel with Earthworks. “Better mining rules can help more equitably transition to clean energy in a way that has tangible benefits for all mining-affected communities and leaves a livable planet to future generations.”
The Interior Department launched the working group in February to review mining laws, regulations and permitting. The agency will consider public comments and is expected to release recommendations, including potential legislation, later this year.
“We can find ways to electrify our cars, trucks, and buses without replicating the toxic burdens that our current energy system imposes on Indigenous communities and others directly impacted by industrial extraction and processing,” said Blaine Miller-McFeeley, senior legislative representative at Earthjustice. “In fact, there’s one obvious place to start: Reform the U.S. law and regulations that have allowed the mining industry to pollute freely for a century and a half.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the metals mining industry is the single-largest source of toxic waste in the United States, and hardrock mines have contaminated an estimated 40% of western watersheds. Unlike the oil, gas, and coal industries, metal mining companies pay nothing to extract publicly owned minerals from public lands across the contiguous U.S. West and Alaska.
The Interior Department oversees the regulations governing compliance with federal mining law and other public lands laws.
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.