Maybe 1872 Mining Law Will Finally Bite the Dust
I read recently that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is going to make it a priority to reform the The General Mining Act of 1872. Hey, better 137 years late than never. This law was enacted to promote the development of public lands back when such lands were just sitting there, unused and unloved and in the mind of an expanding nation, going to waste.
What the 1872 mining law did, in fact, is make sure those lands did go to waste. Lots of waste.
It reduced the cost of going after much-sought-after minerals. While it saved the mining companies a bundle, it has actually cost society as a whole plenty. Mining companies descended on the lands, pulled out the minerals, and got out, leaving toxic waste behind for others to clean up. There are now hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines.
According to Earthworks, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the destructive impacts of mineral development, it will cost taxpayers between $32-72 billion to clean up these abandoned mines. And taxpayers are potentially liable for billions more in cleanup costs at currently operating mines. The Environmental Protection Agency also says that 40% of the headwaters of western U.S. watersheds have been polluted by mining. So the mining wasn't free. It just wasn't paid for.
The 1872 mining law is a classic example--perhaps the classic example--of the old way of doing business as it relates to the environment. The costs of extracting resources and dealing with the waste are left off the balance sheet. As such, the cost of whatever consumer product is derived from such activities does not reflect the true cost of the activity. Instead, cost to clean up the damage (or to learn to live with the toxic residue) is spread out over society as a whole, or inflicted upon local communities who quite often don't reap the corresponding windfall for their troubles.
It may well be that we needed some (though I doubt all) of the precious minerals pulled from US soil over the past 137 years. And we'll need more of them over the next 137 years. But if we need them, we should pay for them. And not just through some diffuse cost spreading mechanism. Instead, we should implement a truer accounting process through which we demonstrate a willingness to pay the true cost of getting at those things we claim we need. If the end consumer were faced with the actual cost of gold, silver, copper, fossil fuels, etc. etc., we might think twice about how much of it we really "need." We might be more willing to invest in alternatives that can still meet our needs, keep people employed, and keep our public lands whole. But as long as mining companies and other producers are allowed to treat the environment and local communities as "externalities," consumers are denied the chance to truly be cost conscious.
Let's hope the General Mining Act of 1872 mining law finally bites the dust. Because we've eaten enough of its dust already.