Statement of Dusty Horwitt, JD at Oversight Hearing on Hardrock Mining on Federal Land

Statement of Dusty Horwitt, JD at Oversight Hearing on Hardrock Mining on Federal Land

Monday, October 1, 2007

Before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Thursday, September 27, 2007 at 9:30 a.m.

Public Lands Analyst

Environmental Working Group

Submitted for the Record


Mr. Chairman, distinguished Members of the Committee: my name is Dusty Horwitt, and I am a Public Lands Analyst at Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit research and advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, and Oakland, California. I thank the members of the Committee for this opportunity to testify.

For the last several years, the Environmental Working Group has analyzed mining claims on federal land, using computerized data provided by the Bureau of Land Management.

Mr. Chairman, what we have found is a frenzy of claim staking that is escalating each day and threatens a crisis for many of America’s most treasured wild places and national parks, including the Grand Canyon, where there has been an explosion of uranium mining claims. This modern-day land rush is driven by the sky-high price of uranium, gold and other metals caused by demand from China, the United States and other players around the globe. It is facilitated by a law written in 1872 when Ulysses S. Grant was president.

More than four years of analysis has led us to one inescapable conclusion: Under the current, wide open mining law, where mining interests – unlike oil and gas companies – can stake claims with no government oversight or approval, vast portions of the American West are at the mercy of global demand for minerals. This is simply unacceptable. Without changes to the law, global demand for minerals could easily result in situations where companies begin prospecting and developing mining claims right next to incomparable wonders like the Grand Canyon, other national parks or even local water supplies.

Since 2003, mining claims on public land in 12 Western states have increased by 80 percent. You can see the chart here showing the increase. Active claims are now at their highest level since an annual claim maintenance fee took effect in the mid-1990s.

Claims have increased in each Western state. Here is an image of New Mexico where claims active as of July 2007– marked in blue – have increased 50 percent in the last three-and-a-half years. Each claim on the map represents dozens or even hundreds of claims on the ground. Here is an image of Colorado where claims have increased by 239 percent, the largest percentage increase of any state. Again the claims on the map represent many thousands on the ground as we will see in just a moment.

This dramatic surge in claims could be extremely problematic because once a claim is staked, the federal government interprets mining law as providing virtually no way to stop hard rock mining, short of buying out mining claims or other extraordinary intervention, even when mining is right next to national parks such as the Grand Canyon.

Here is a satellite image of Grand Canyon National Park. The claims are featured in blue, clustered on both the north and south rims.

We found that as of July, mining interests hold 815 claims within five miles of the Park, 805 of them staked since January 2003.

Most of these claims are for uranium. Those identified as uranium claims are marked with the yellow and black symbol.

A Canadian company, Quaterra Resources, has already proposed to drill exploratory holes for uranium just north of the Canyon. The operation would include a helicopter pad to carry supplies in and out.

Next, let’s look at a map of the canyon country in southern Utah and Colorado (show image). Many of these claims are also for uranium. Arches National Park in Utah has 869 claims within five miles of its boundary, 864 of them staked since January 2003. Nearby, Canyonlands National Park has 233 claims within five miles, all staked since January 2003. Some of the claims on the Colorado side are near lands treasured for their scenic and recreational values.

Without proper protections for our public lands, these claims can be very costly. In 1996, the federal government paid $65 million to buy out patented claims just three miles from Yellowstone National Park that would have been the site of a major gold mine. The mine would have been located at the headwaters of three streams that flow into the park.

You’ll note the town of Moab, Utah toward the top left of the map.

The Department of Energy has begun a project to clean up 16 million tons of radioactive uranium mine waste near Moab that have contaminated land near the Colorado River. The waste is a threat that could pollute drinking water for millions. Cleanup estimates range between $412 million and $697 million. The project may not be completed until 2028.

Mining pollution – our leading source of toxic pollution – is often not contained at the site of the mine. In Summitville, Colorado in 1992 a spill of cyanide and heavy metal-laden water killed some 20 miles of the Alamosa River. The area is now a Superfund Site. A similar disaster occurred in the 1990s at Oregon’s Formosa mine. The EPA listed it as a Superfund Site just this month.

Mining provides important raw materials for our economy, but we also need a Mining Law that – in the face of global demand – protects our most important places and allows land managers to balance mining with resources such as drinking water just as they can with oil and gas development. With our most treasured places at risk, the time for reform is now.

I thank the committee for this opportunity to testify and look forward to your questions.