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Cantwell: Mining Companies Able to Ignore Clean Water Under 1872 Law

Press Release

Location: Washington, DC

Cantwell: Mining Companies Able to Ignore Clean Water Under 1872 Law
Mining Reform is Long Overdue; Environmental and Community Health Issues Must Be Addressed

As the U.S. Senate considers legislation to update the Mining Law of 1872, a 136 year old law that governs mining on western public lands, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) today attended an Energy and Natural Resources Hearing on reforming the Mining Law - specifically, what to do with abandoned mines, and uranium mining. Senator Cantwell is leading a "Dear Colleague" with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) letter to Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Ranking Member Pete Domenici (R-NM) to include strong environmental safeguards as part of any Mining Law reform.

"Because the 1872 Mining Law interprets mining as the ‘highest and best' use of public lands, federal land managers are literally hamstrung from denying any mining project that could have harmful affects on the environment and other competing public uses of the land," said Cantwell. "Local communities have no veto right for a proposed mine, but with at least 16 modern mines going bankrupt, mining companies have a de-facto veto on clean water under the 1872 law, leaving taxpayers with the bill for cleanup."

At the hearing, Cantwell pointed out that in a recent Environmental Impact Statement for a proposed gold mine in Idaho, the Forest Service emphasized that it does not have the authority to deny the mineunder the 1872 Mining Law. Meanwhile, in the last 20 years, 16 modern mines have gone bankrupt. A 2003 report from the Mineral Policy Center estimates that American taxpayers are potentially liable for up to $12 billion in cleanup costs for hardrock mining sites.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), metal or hardrock mining in Washington released more than 14.5 million pounds of toxins in 2005 - placing them ninth among 17 states that reported chemical releases from metal mines in 2005. The Washington Department of Ecology estimates that there are 3,800 abandoned mines in Washington. One of these abandoned mines is the Midnite Mine located within the Spokane Indian Reservation. The EPA listed the Midnite Mine as a Superfund Site in 2000 and warned the tribe about its dangers. Although mining operations ceased in 1981, the full scale of the health impacts associated with such activities are not yet known.

"The story of the devastating health and environmental effects that uranium mining has had on the Spokane Tribe of Indians is a sad, but important story to tell," continued Cantwell. "It also underscores the need to enact strong environmental protections to prevent these types of environmental and health hazards from mining operations in the future."

Many former Spokane tribal mine workers have developed cancer or have died. Although mining operations ceased at the Midnite Mine in 1981, the full scale of the health impacts associated with such activities are not yet known. In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to compensate sick uranium workers who conducted uranium mining and processing activities. Unfortunately, the Spokane Tribe is still working to secure assistance under this program for its members.

"For far too long the effects of uranium mining on the Spokane Tribe have been overlooked," said Cantwell. "I look forward to working with the Spokane Tribe and the Department of Justice to give them immediate and necessary assistance."

This week, Cantwell will be sending a letter to the Department of Justice calling for the agency to immediately schedule meetings with the Spokane Tribe of Indians in Washington state to help secure compensation.

Cantwell and Wyden's "Dear Colleague" letter outlines major areas of concern with this mining law including:

* putting hardrock mining on par with other public land uses;
* protecting national parks, monuments, and special places;
* giving local communities a voice;
* establishing environmental performance and reclamation standards;
* ensuring the protection of the water resources;
* and accelerating abandoned mine land clean-up.

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