One of the least regulated industries is also one of the most polluting.

Inactive and abandoned hardrock mines dot the western landscape. Some of these sites leach contaminates into waterways that provide drinking water for people, animals, and crops in many communities. Hardrock minerals are things like copper, gold, iron, lead, silver, but also uranium.

Back in the 1800s in an effort to encourage westward expansion, the General Mining Act of 1872  gave public minerals to individuals or mining companies for free and required no environmental protections or cleanup standards when the mining was complete.

Modern luxuries like jewelry and telecom use hardrock minerals. But hardrock mining is governed by a law written nearly 150 years ago. That’s right – a law signed nearly 150 years ago by President Ulysses S. Grant covers the mining of these metals today.

WORC and our member groups have been organizing for decades to get comprehensive reform of the 1872 mining law. The good news is that there is legislation to address these very problems and create a funding stream to cleanup old and leaking abandoned mines. A similar system is in place for coal mines, so this is not a new concept.

But the mining industry and their allies in Congress have so far blocked reform, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which ends up taking responsibility for the pollution and waste that mining companies can’t or won’t clean up, has limited resources to deal with the problem.

In the meantime, WORC’s member groups have been taking matters into their own hands. Members of the Cottonwood Resource Council, a local affiliate of the Northern Plains Resource Council in Montana, have two platinum/palladium mines in their communities and have designed a first of its kind Good Neighbor Agreement with the mining company.

There are lots of other good organizing efforts in the west and across the country by groups working at the state and local level on hardrock mining. WORC helps sponsor the Western Mining Action Network, a forum for groups working in Canada and the United States to share information and learn from one another. Almost 100 culturally and geographically diverse organizations across North America participate in the network.

Never miss an opportunity to make the West a healthier and more sustainable place to call home.

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