By Melanie Lippert and Stephen Nash
Yep, let’s agree that we need minerals and that mining employment is good for Arizona and the Apache Junction – Gold Canyon area: the industry generates a $1.25 billion payroll across the state each year.And, we reckon, there’s no denying mining’s picturesque historic appeal, with its genial props – burros, pickaxes, bonanzas gone bust, ghost towns.
The real legacy is another thing entirely, though: It’s at least 120 square miles of wrecked landscapes across the state, created by just the largest mines – yawning pits, ominous mountains of tailings.
It’s a hundred thousand abandoned mines, with an unknown number leaking acid drainage into increasingly scarce water sources. State officials say there could be as many as 5,000 of those, but then, who’s checking?
It’s 170.4 million pounds of waste rock with potential toxic drainage, generated in just the most recent two years tallied in the EPA’s national inventory.
It’s state and federal legislators who take campaign money from mining interests, as if that were okay, while also regulating them in the public interest.Phoenix 4th District Congressman Paul Gosar (R), received at least $23,750 from them in 2016 alone. Sen. Jeff Flake, (R) got at least $10,300 and Sen. John McCain (R), $41,800.
It’s huge new mines, proposed and underway, on our national forests and other public lands. They threaten wildlife, tourism and scarce water resources: in the Santa Ritas near Tucson, in the beautiful Patagonia mountains south of there, around Grand Canyon National Park and, of course, the huge Resolution Copper mine on Oak Flat, above the town of Superior, just east of us.
Their corporate proprietors are often based in Australia, Canada, China or Britain. And whether they’re foreign or U.S.-based, they pay no royalties to the real owners – you and me – when they pull billions of dollars in copper, gold or uranium out of our federal public lands.
That’s thanks to a 147-year-old federal law that mining interests have defended adroitly since the Ulysses S. Grant administration. Is your Congressional delegation fighting to change that absurd law? Ask. Because this isn’t old-timey days, though many Arizona legislators, both state and federal, pretend so.
They hide behind the industry’s “jobs-jobs-jobs” mantra, as if sane regulations aren’t compatible with profitable mines and high employment. We expect food vendors to meet health standards and not dump garbage in the street. We require contractors to design and assemble safe buildings and not leave poisoned piles of construction waste behind when they finish. We don’t say, “jobs-jobs-jobs,” and let them get away with it.
When it comes to getting financial guarantees from the mining industry to assure responsible behavior, “Arizona’s at the bottom of the list,” the consulting engineer James Kuipers, who has worked in this field for more than 30 years, told us recently. “Whatever the mining companies want the state legislature to do, they’ll do,” Roger Featherstone of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition has concluded. “Arizona’s the bottom of the barrel.”
That can change if voters make it change. Here’s a to-do list, inspired by the good work of other states with strong mining industries. Their laws are not always implemented with vigor, but they have made responsible mining, rather than complacency, a priority.
California requires that, if you dig a big mine hole, you have to put up the money to guarantee that you will backfill it when you’re done. Or you don’t mine. Montana requires enough money—beforehand, not after the fact—to ensure that minelands are fully reclaimed. Montana also identifies local government tax burdens that a new mine would create, and the mining company is required to pay for those expenses as they arise.
To protect its wildlife and watersheds, New Mexico, Kuipers says, often forbids toxic “pit lakes” and demands up-front cash guarantees to make sure that doesn’t happen. State law also requires that mine sites be restored so that they provide “a self-sustaining ecosystem appropriate for the life zone of the surrounding areas” and “without perpetual care.”
Arizona’s cleanup cost estimates should be made by an independent third party, and cleanup promises should be bonded in advance. One dated study – the last time anyone looked – found that those estimates were at least tens of millions of dollars, and perhaps billions, short of realistic here. And if a mining corporation bankrupts and walks away, it can leave a colossal mess behind for taxpayers to pay for or suffer with.
The anti-government Fraser Institute’s annual survey of mining executives reliably names Arizona among the world’s “top ten most attractive jurisdictions for mining investment.” Guess who’s getting shafted. Right: you are.
Look for political candidates who’ve sworn off campaign contributions from mining interests — it’s legalized “soft corruption.” Wave your arms and warn your legislators now: no more irresponsible mining, and no more mining cash on the legislative table. Let’s get started.
Lippert and Nash are independent journalists; Nash is the author of Grand Canyon for Sale—Public Lands and Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change.
Photo above: The Morenci Mine, near Clifton, AZ