Federal agencies oversee hardrock mining operations on federal lands. However, they face challenges collecting data and conducting cleanup activities.
Hardrock minerals, such as gold, silver, and copper, play an important role in the U.S. economy by contributing to multiple industries, including transportation, defense, and aerospace. The General Mining Act of 1872 allows individuals to stake claims and obtain exclusive rights to the hardrock mineral deposits that belong to the United States.
Because mining disturbs the land and creates the potential for serious public health, safety, and environmental hazards, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service oversee hardrock mining operations on federal lands.
Some key issues related to federal oversight of hardrock mining include:
- As of September 2018, there were 748 hardrock mining operations on federal land, most of which aren’t subject to royalties. But nobody knows exactly how productive these mines are because agencies generally don’t collect data from mine operators that don’t have to pay royalties.
- Until the federal government established requirements in the 1970s for mine operators to reclaim the land after their operations ceased, an operator could extract hardrock minerals and abandon the mine without reclaiming it. Federal agencies 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 millions more and create potential liability issues.
Potential Cleanup Activities at Abandoned Hardrock Mines