Digging to China
Leaving Nevada I thought about those dead lakes shining in the desert
sun, the dead birds I had seen in Spokane, the hundreds and thousands of
abandoned mines still leaking poisons into the west’s water, the sprawling
chemical filth of the flats below the Anaconda smelter stack, the blowouts
that still corrupt rivers and water tables. At what ultimate cost … have
we held so fiercely to this antique law, dreaming the long dream of trea-
sure that I once saluted with such enthusiasm.
T. H. Watkins, “Hard Rock Legacy,” National Geographic Magazine
Americans like to buy things and own them—barbecues and refrigerators, computers and iPods, cars and bikes, boats and even private planes. Some folks make their appliances last a long time, but manufacturers rely on most people to buy new ones every five years or so. The few critics of our system sometimes charge that items from appliances and vehicles are designed to break down relatively quickly, to prod consumption along. Walking through a showroom or past shop windows, how many people stop to wonder where all the stuff comes from or what happens there? Here is the short answer: Nearly everything you use every day is based on minerals mined somewhere, often leaving behind disfigured land and a toxic mess. Materials still mined in the western United States include metals, particularly gold, iron, copper, zinc, and molybdenum—plus gypsum, borates, and other salts, and most cement ingredients.
Mining is the prow of America’s consumer-propelled ship. Its whole purpose is to dig up resources for transformation to consumer goods. But the resources are nonrenewable, so mining progressively eliminates and eventually exhausts them. The processes of exploring for and exploiting mineral deposits consume vast resources also, especially water and energy.
Natural processes spread mine pollution into water, soil, and air, at times killing all life in creeks, streams, and reservoirs. Geographer Lewis Mumford once estimated that “Mining’s effects on the earth are now on the same scale as hugely destructive natural forces.” He guessed the minimum amount of material moved by global mining operations at 28 billion tons in 1963—nearly twice the sediment all the world’s rivers carry annually.1 Determining just how much land may be affected by mine wastes, and how much farther the damage might spread, is more difficult. The massive scale of today’s mining operations dwarfs Mumford’s figure.
The dominant U.S. mining law offers wide swaths of U.S. public lands to any and all comers, whether foreign or domestic (box 4.1). The costs of claiming