According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, Nevada ranked first in the nation for the release of toxic chemicals per square mile, and second in total releases overall, in 2017 – because of the hard rock mining industry. The EPA reported that mining giant Newmont Mining Corp. released a combined 230 million pounds of waste from three facilities, and Barrick mines released 75 million pounds that year.
Sadly, it’s not surprising.
Since 1872, hard rock mining companies have been allowed to pollute our waterways and other natural resources with no accountability or legal obligation to pay reparations. Over the past 150 years, mining companies have extracted more than $300 billion worth of gold, silver, copper and other minerals from public lands without paying any federal royalties – leaving in their wake billions of dollars’ worth of pollution and damage that falls upon taxpayers, states and local communities to address.
Not only as an elected official but also as a Nevadan who is passionate about protecting our public lands, I support the Hardrock Leasing and Reclamation Act of 2019, which is our only chance of addressing over a century’s worth of environmental damage, protecting our local outdoor recreation economies, making sure we have an insurance policy in place for cleaning up abandoned mine sites, and receiving a fair return for the exploitation of our publicly owned resources.
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Currently, we do not have a designated, reclamation fee-funded program to clean up abandoned mines (we rely on ourselves and the EPA’s limited Superfund program), and the U.S. is the only country that does not charge a royalty for the extraction of minerals on our public lands. Nevada’s gold mining industry alone is worth $7.4 billion, and Taxpayers for Common Sense reported this year that between 2008 and 2017, more than 870 metric tons of gold worth approximately $35 billion was extracted from our state’s federal lands. And taxpayers received nothing for it. According to TCS, charging a royalty of just 5 percent on that would have amounted to nearly $1.6 billion in taxpayer revenue collected.
Historically, Nevada’s federal leaders have not been good stewards of our public lands and resources on this issue. Congressman Mark Amodei opposes royalty legislation and, in fact, reintroduced a bill this year (the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act) to streamline the permitting process for mining companies. And former Senator Harry Reid helped quash the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007, which would have established a small royalty. Even Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, who has said mining companies should support their communities and environmental conservation, has not yet taken a hard stance on the need for royalties.
This needs to change. Mining companies operate on a much larger scale than in 1872, and it’s only reasonable that regulations would evolve with the industry. The practice takes place on 350 million acres of public lands across the nation, and taxpayers, local economies and our environment pay the price.
Nevada’s abandoned Anaconda Copper Mine has contaminated the groundwater near Yerington since the 19th century, and cleanup has been an ongoing battle for the local community and the Yerington Paiute Tribe for years. And just this year, water pollution concerns have been swirling around the proposed Mt. Hope Molybdenum Mine near Eureka.
The metal mining industry is the nation’s number one source of toxic pollution, contaminating an estimated 40 percent of our headwaters and creating some $50 billion worth of cleanup damage – and Nevada is one of the leading states contributing to that. The industry is also exempt from some of our nation’s most basic and critical environmental safeguards, including portions of the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
We need to update the General Mining Act of 1872 to protect our recreation economies, curb pollution and make sure this multi-billion-dollar industry in Nevada is giving taxpayers their rightful share.
Daniel Corona is the mayor of West Wendover. He is a contributor to Western Leaders Voices, a program of Western Leaders Network that helps amplify the voices of local and tribal elected leaders on conservation issues in the West.