A common refrain is “government should be run like a business.” If that’s the case, the next question should be, what business would sell its most valuable assets for prices set nearly 150 years ago?
That may seem like an odd question, but it’s pretty much what our federal government does with public lands when a mining operation wants to open up there.
According to the 1872 Mining Act, a claim (basically an assertion of a right to mine) can be made on a certain types of public land and the federal government will charge you the lofty price of $5 per acre.
That was the price set in 1872. That is still the price.
Companies that mine for natural gas or oil have to pay royalties, and there is a lengthy permitting process for coal mining. Mining for hard rock minerals such as gold, copper, or uranium, requires nothing except that miniscule payment per acre.
By the way, if you want to go camping on Mt. Lemon (both the Catalinas and the Santa Ritas are part of Coronado National Forest), they’ll charge you $22. That’s just for one night and you are supposed to clean up after yourself.
This isn’t only about how little they pay, there are broad environmental consequences to the act and how little responsibility that it mandates in return for a mining claim.
Arizona, according to a story that Cronkite News published in December, has up to 100,000 abandoned mines, the most of any state. The State Mine Inspector’s office has a grand total of two people who are tasked with securing these old mines and inspecting them to make sure that there are no hazards such as chemicals and old explosives present. The companies that abandoned those claims, due to the way the act is interpreted, have no obligation to mitigate or clean up after the mine has played out. It is estimated that taxpayers are on the hook for up to $72 billion to clean up closed mines. Unless this system changes, there will be billions more from current and future mining operations.
An additional consequence has to do with a resource I have been particularly keen on protecting during my time in office: our water. 40% of the headwaters of western watersheds are polluted by mines. An article that the Star ran in February pointed out that there are watersheds that have been tainted by arsenic and lead, much of this because there is little legal obligation to mitigate after a mining operation has shut down. In Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, an estimated 15 million gallons of acid flows out of abandoned mines every day.
You may have read that the Rosemont Mine is close to opening up south of Tucson. The pit will be partially on National Forest land. The plans also involve putting tailings and a waste pond on that federal land portion of the operation (that’s land that is owned by the tax payers). Runoff from the Santa Rita Mountains, where the mine will be located, flows into the Santa Cruz River, the basin where we recharge drinking water.
This is reported by the Environmental Protection Agency in two memos. According to those memos, the proposed mine would pollute surface water and disrupt the flow of Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon. The warnings didn’t have much effect on the mine being issued a permit to operate.
The company says they will take steps to mitigate, but when the mine plays out in 25 years, they will no longer have the obligation to do so. The out-of-state investors will be gone and those of us who live here will be suffering the consequences for a long time.
The price that the Canadian-based company will pay to cause that damage to Southern Arizona’s environment? Less than 5000 bucks.