Oregon's salmon and taxpayers pay the price for mining
Each summer, tens of thousands of Oregonians raft the Wild and Scenic Rogue River and serenely float by the abandoned Almeda mine that has been discharging carcinogenic heavy metals into the river for decades. The toxic Almeda mine embodies all that is wrong with the 1872 Mining Act that governs mining on public lands and waterways.
Here is how it works: (1) A private mining interest files a mineral claim on federal lands near a stream; (2) the mining interest extracts all the valuable minerals (i.e. gold) from the public lands while paying no royalties; (3) laws that would limit the environmental damage of the mining are largely waived or ignored; (4) the mining interest packs up and leaves; and (5) the taxpayer is left paying to clean up the cyanide, arsenic and toxic metals left behind.
In the case of Almeda, taxpayers have already shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in unsuccessful efforts to keep the toxic stew out of the Rogue River and still an ultimate solution is unknown. It may be that no amount of public-funded remediation can repair the dig-and-run damage at Almeda. The 2009 stimulus bill contained nearly $10 million for clean-up of toxic mining waste on public lands in southwest Oregon, and that barely scratches the surface of the problem.
For years salmon enthusiasts, commercial fishing interests and taxpayer groups have advocated for changes to the 1872 Mining Act. In 2007, Congress came tantalizingly close when the U.S. House passed legislation to require that taxpayers receive royalties from mineral extraction on public lands while bolstering watershed protections. Unfortunately, the Senate failed to act.
Due to concerns for water quality and salmon, California enacted a moratorium in August on "suction dredging," which is a form of mining that sucks up gravels and sediment from the bottom of a stream, filters out gold, and then releases sediment into the stream in a long, turbid plume.
With the California moratorium in place, miners have their eyes set on the rivers and streams of southwest Oregon. A California mining club with several thousand members has identified a number of stretches of the Rogue River that its members intend to mine this summer. A Washington state real-estate developer has bought up nearly 24 river miles of claims on the Chetco River and is encouraging California miners to bring their suction dredges to Oregon.
What can protect the salmon and water quality of Oregon's streams from this new gold rush?
The Obama administration needs to enact a time-out on new mining claims on salmon-bearing hot spots in southwest Oregon. Both of Oregon's senators, as well as Gov. Ted Kulongoski, have asked the Department of the Interior to withdraw the wild-and-scenic-designated Checto River and other high-value salmon waterways from additional mining claims in the Siskiyou Wild Rivers Area.
Ultimately, Congress must finish its work and reform the outdated 1872 Mining Act so that water quality and taxpayers don't always play second fiddle to private mining profits extracted from public lands.
Lesley Adams is Rogue riverkeeper for the Ashland-based Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center.