In my post on the week’s biggest enviro news – Obama’s massive expansion of offshore oil drilling – I noted that increasingly, Obama's environmental decisions are indistinguishable from those made by the previous inhabitant of the White House. Nothing demonstrates that better than this week’s biggest sleeper enviro news: Obama approving dumping of small mountains of toxic waste on public land.
It’s all related to the General Mining Law of 1872, which even today gives mining companies access to gold, silver and other precious metals on public land – without asking the mining firms to pay anything to the public for the minerals taken off public land.
Obama's decision this week – which has gotten very little attention – backs the Bush administration's stance: allow mining companies to use large amounts of land around their mines to dump mining waste laced with all kinds of nasty stuff.
To really get the picture of how industrial-scale gold mining is done in America today, you have to understand that whole hillsides are ground to dust and then doused with cyanide to extract the tiny percentages of gold contained in the ore.
After that, these whole hillsides worth of dirt have to go somewhere. Miners want to use public land for that. The Bush administration said OK. This week, so did the Obama administration, acting in a case in which enviros challenged a Bush-era decision allowing the waste dumping on so-called “millsite” land around the actual mine.
Our interest in this subject dates to our expose' on how the 1872 law still is wreaking havoc in the West, allowing mining companies to start up operations, rip out huge hillsides and then go toes-up when notoriously volatile metals prices plunge. Left the way God made them, these hillsides are harmless. Treated this way, they acidify literally thousands of miles of Western streams.
Politics are written all over Obama's decision. It comes as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in a tough re-election fight. He hails from the biggest gold-mining state in the nation, Nevada, where support of the gold industry is a key to re-election. (Not to mention that Reid is a son of a miner, and grew up in the mining community of Searchlight, Nev.)
And check out this item that ran in Nevada during Obama’s campaign that seems to presage Obama’s recent move. It’s from a progressive website called the Las Vegas Gleaner, outlining the goings-on of an Obama phone call with reporters, and includes this passage:
“The bulk of the call, somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, was taken up with questions and answers about federal mining law reform. On that issue, Obama appears to be for … whatever Harry Reid says he should be for.”
This issue deserves more attention than I’ve given it here tonight. But it’s late on a Friday night and I have to head for home at some point if I want to see my wife for a few hours before returning to my office Saturday morning for more fun and games. The Gleaner's piece gives a pretty good rundown of the situation if you'd like to know more. And of course we've covered this here at Dateline Earth in the past, too.
— Robert McClure