The primary law governing mining, passed in 1872, could not have anticipated the scale of current mining operations and is inadequate for their regulation. These operations present real threats to the health of people and ecosystems in the vicinity of mines and often for hundreds of miles downstream.
The mining industry operates out of sight and out of mind of most citizens and the media. Given the remote locations of the vast majority of hard rock mines, most Americans have never seen first-hand the scale of environmental damage caused by mining.
This lack of public awareness is exacerbated by documented threats being downplayed by pro-industry western politicians. The combination of limited public awareness and a bureaucratic “blind eye” has allowed the mining industry to operate with little substantive regulations of its impacts and few requirements for restoration of land after mining has ceased.
Pollution of air, drinking water, rivers and soils and loss of vegetation are common ecological impacts of modern mines. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the headwaters of over 40 percent of the watersheds in the western United States are contaminated by pollution from hard rock mining.
While human health impacts of acid mine drainage have not been extensively studied, it has been determined the high levels of exposure to arsenic, manganese and thallium, potential byproducts of acid mine drainage, can increase the risk of cancer and other illnesses in humans. Cyanide presents a serious health threat in modern mines, as it is extremely lethal in very small doses. While it breaks down quickly, there are risks associated with the resulting compounds, which can persist in the environment and bio-accumulate in the food chain. The risk of an accidental release of waste into drinking water sources is ever-present. A report by the EPA listed 95 “major” incidents in eight states between 1990 and 1997.
Taxpayers are often stuck with the cost of reclaiming damaged mining sites and reducing sources of harm to environmental and human health. The risks posed to human health by historic and modern mining are real. Investment in improving the health of communities impacted by mining will serve not only to reduce the current risk, but also to illustrate the need for broader changes in our permitting processes and policies that allowed the contamination to occur in the first place.
I thought Alaska would be leading the way, until I did some research. According to the EPA’s annual Toxics Release Inventory, Alaska has been turning up as one of the most polluted states in America for several years because of the mining industry. It’s been said that waste rock from Alaska’s mines are well engineered, contained and regulated by the state and federal agencies. As time and facts have been proven, the public now knows otherwise.
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