The abandoned John Henry coal mine in Black Diamond has never been cleaned up, and it continues to pollute streams which flow into the Green and Duwamish rivers and ultimately Puget Sound. West Virginia has thousands of miles of waterways contaminated by coal-mining waste. And coal companies in Kentucky stripped away hillsides and blew the tops off mountains. Consequently, the treeless land increases the speed and volume of rain runoff and worsens flooding. There are also polluted waterways and 1,100 abandoned uranium mines on or adjacent to the Navaho Nation in New Mexico.
The 2021 Infrastructure Act includes $11 billion to cleanup mines and affected waterways. But another $20 billion is needed for sites abandoned since 1977. Congress must also replace the antiquated 1872 General Mining Act. Having encouraged mining companies to appropriate Indigenous land in the West, it’s lax on requiring them to clean up their messes.
Over 500,000 abandoned mines continue to wreak havoc on the environment and pollute water. Most environmentalists think the mining industry should be responsible for cleaning them up, not taxpayers. But the House failed last year to approve the U.S.’s first-ever royalty fee on new and existing “hard-rock” mines on federal land to help pay for cleaning up mines.
A new concern is the impact the mining of ores and minerals needed for transitioning to clean energy will have on our environment and the people who work in and/or live near the mines. Earthjustice says, “Of the untapped critical minerals in the U.S., some 97% of nickel, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium, and 68% of cobalt – all considered key for energy transition – are within 35 miles of Native American reservations.”
A 500% increase in demand for critical minerals is expected by 2050, and the 2021 infrastructure bill included $7 billion for developing domestic supply chains for them. The U.S. has only one operating nickel mine and its resources will be exhausted by 2026. Another company wants to build an underground mine 50 miles west of Lake Superior in Minnesota. Members of the Sandy Lake Band of the Chippewa Tribe say the wild rice they’ve taken care of for 800 years will be destroyed by the sulfide which will be leached into the rivers and lakes.
Several “rare-earth elements” or REEs are also needed for wind turbines, solar, electric car motors, smartphones, smart bombs, etc. These 17 “heavy metals” are often laced with radioactive thorium and uranium, and 2,000 tons of toxic waste are produced for every ton of REE. China produced 85% of the world’s refined REEs in 2016. It’s moving operations to Africa to minimize the hazards to its people.
Yes, we need to strive for more resiliency in generating clean energy by sourcing minerals in the U.S. But we should be proceeding more cautiously. We must adopt meaningful legislation on protecting people adjacent to mining areas and mandating royalties and cleanups. And we must focus much more on recycling. Battery minerals can and should be recovered and reused (potential 94% recovery rate). And Apple’s newest iPhone 12 is made from 98% reused REEs. If Apple can do it, others can, too.
You can click on this link for more information on rare earth mining: Not So “Green” Technology: The Complicated Legacy of Rare Earth Mining
The Earth is Sacred – Not Ours to Wreck