Hard Rock Mines Threaten the Nation’s Waters

Bristol Bay, Alaska
The Pebble gold and copper mine is planned for the headwaters of Bristol Bay's best wild salmon rivers.

Metal prices are on a tear. Both gold and silver prices recently hit all-time highs. While this is good news for investors, it should alarm anyone who cares about clean water and wildlife.

That’s because these soaring prices have caused a surge of new hard rock mining claims, bringing with them a multitude of threats to our nation’s water and wildlife.

Hard Rock Mining a Toxic and Destructive Force on Ecosystems

The hard rock mining industry is the single largest source of toxic waste and one of the most destructive industries in the country.  Today’s industrial-strength mining involves the blasting, excavating, and crushing of thousands of acres of land and the use of huge quantities of toxic chemicals such as cyanide and sulfuric acid.

The mines that produce our gold, silver, and copper are notorious for polluting adjacent streams, wetlands, and groundwater with toxic by-products. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 40% of the watersheds in the western U.S. are contaminated by pollution from hard rock mines.

New Mine Could Threaten Wild Sockeye Salmon Run

Record metal prices, coupled with new technologies, allow the mining industry to develop in places–and at a scale–that would not have been feasible in the past. The Pebble Partnership, for example, is proposing to build North America’s largest copper and gold mine in the remote headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the source of the greatest runs of wild sockeye salmon left on earth. This project would have been almost unimaginable a decade ago.

Closing Loopholes to Protect America’s Waters

The good news for people who care about pure water and abundant wildlife is that the Clean Water Act could prevent many of the most destructive practices of hard rock mines. With a simple rule change, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) could close two “loopholes” in this critical law that allow many large hard rock mines to dump their tailings and other wastes into the nearest lake or river.

Earlier this year, the agencies seemed poised to make exactly this change. President Obama had made a strong public commitment to protecting the nation’s waters and EPA and the Corps had discussed specific regulatory language. Unfortunately, Administration progress on clean water has been slow going, mired in budget battles and a barrage of industry lobby attacks.

But, it’s not too late. There is still time to restore Clean Water Act protections for embattled western streams and close the loopholes that allow mines, such as Pebble Mine, to legally poison our waters. Mining wastes threaten the nation’s wildlife and community health. If we don’t take immediate action, soaring metal prices will only make the situation worse.