Hardrock minerals, such as gold, silver, and copper, play an important role in the U.S. economy by contributing to multiple industries, including transportation and defense. However, mining disturbs the land and creates the potential for serious public health, safety, and environmental hazards.
Federal agencies oversee hardrock mining operations on federal lands using two different systems, depending on where the resources occur.
However, agencies could improve how they manage hardrock mining—especially in regards to governance and transparency, environmental stewardship, and administrative resources.
- As of September 2018, there were 748 hardrock mining operations on federal land. Most of these operations are managed under the location system and therefore aren’t subject to royalties. Consequently, the quantity of minerals produced from mines on federal lands under this system is unknown because agencies generally don’t collect data from mine operators that don’t have to pay royalties.
- The federal government established requirements in the 1970s for mine operators to reclaim the land after their operations ceased—i.e., minimize or address the environmental impacts of the mining operations. Mine operators before that period could extract hardrock minerals and abandon the mine without reclaiming it. As of 2019, federal agencies had identified about 140,000 remnants of these hardrock mines on lands they oversee, including unsecured tunnels and toxic waste piles. Agencies spent about $2.9 billion between FYs 2008-2017 to address such hazards at these abandoned mines, but addressing them all could cost billions more and create potential liability issues.
- In 2020, a number of stakeholders identified areas for improvement in the management of hardrock mining on federal lands. Among other things, they said agencies do not always have adequate resources to oversee mining programs and conduct timely review of mine plans.
A gold mine on federal lands in Nevada