A homegrown movement to protect the pure waters & famed rivers of Southwest Oregon's Kalmiopsis - Wild Rivers Coast Region

EPA | Metal mining biggest toxic polluter in U.S. again

Post revised 5/25/2016.   EPA’s latest Toxic Release Inventory report shows that the metal mining industry produced 45% of all toxic pollution in the United States in 2014. You won’t hear advocates of mining ever mention this when they’re promoting mines on our National Forest and BLM lands, but it is a fact.

Each year the Environmental Protection Agency analyzes data provided by 21,873 reporting facilities across the United States. The part of the metal mining sector subject to TRI reporting includes eighty-nine facilities mining copper, lead, zinc, silver, gold, and several other metals. So while metal mines represented just a fraction of one percent (.4%) of all reporting facilities, they were responsible for almost half of all toxic pollution in our nation in the latest reporting year.

Rough and Ready Creek
The Cave Junction and Obrien communities have long opposed nickel strip mining at Rough and Ready Creek—a Forest Service Eligible Wild and Scenic River. The creek is exceptionally clear and clean and is home to the highest concentration of rare plants in Oregon. Nate Wilson photo.

With numbers like these, it’s little wonder that communities in a remote, mostly pristine corner of southwest Oregon and northwest California—famous for its crystal clear rivers and wild salmon and steelhead runs—oppose the development of nickel strip mines in the watersheds of the area’s beautiful rivers. These rivers provide some of the cleanest, clearest drinking water in the nation to downstream communities. The headwaters of Hunter Creek and the Pistol River, and of the National Wild and Scenic Smith and Illinois Rivers, are no place for the most polluting industry in the nation.

The metal mining industry topped the previous TRI reporting year’s list of toxic polluters too. And while the amount of pollution released to the environment in 2014 was a little less than the previous year, the over all trend—from 2003 to 2014—is upward in the amount of toxic pollution generated by metal mines. See EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory industry comparison page here. Click on “metal mining” for specifics. 

USEAP TRI Report
In 2014, the latest EPA Toxic Release Inventory reporting year, just 89 metal mining facilities were responsible for 45% of all toxic pollution in the United States. Source USEPA.

Looking more closely at the data, the EPA report found that 99% of the mining industry’s toxic releases were on-site and to the land. This doesn’t sound as bad as dumping toxics directly into a river or other waterbody. However, even in desert environments, we know that unleashing toxic chemicals in watersheds can lead to the pollution of streams and critical groundwater sources. Witness the pollution of the Animas River in Colorado and New Mexico and the Rio Doce in Brazil last year.[1]

Sludge from a tailings pond burst many miles upstream on the Rio Doce River in Brazil reaches the Atlantic Ocean.
Sludge from the an iron ore mine tailings dam failure many miles upstream reaches the Atlantic Ocean. The dam failure sent a torrent of mud and debris down Rio Doce River in Brazil resulting in 17 deaths. See this article in the Guardian.

But the Kalmiopsis and Wild Rivers Coast regions are not deserts. It rains here—a lot. Red Flat Nickel Corporation’s Cleopatra Project (in Oregon’s half of the North Fork Smith River watershed) is about 10 miles north of Gasquet Mountain where 244 inches of precipitation (mostly in the form of rain) was recorded in a single season. Precipitation in normal years is estimated between one 100 to 150 inches.

The North Fork Smith River provides clean drinking water to downstream communities like Gasquet, Hiouchi, Redwood State and National Parks and Crescent City, California. The mining company’s Red Flat Project is in the headwaters of Hunter Creek and the Pistol River, about 7 miles inland from the Pacific. So we know rainfall is bound to be high there also. Many residents along these streams get their drinking water from nearby wells. These National Forest lands are no places to locate nickel mines.

Proponent of mining in Southwestern Oregon often say current regulations are adequate to prevent harm but this EPA report shows the metal mining industry's toxic releases increased between 2003 and 2014. Source of graph - USEPA
Proponent of mining in Southwestern Oregon often say current regulations are adequate to prevent harm but this EPA report shows the metal mining industry’s toxic releases increased between 2003 and 2014. Source of graph – USEPA

Why is this information so important now? Because the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are considering a proposal to temporarily withdraw about 101,000 acres of high value conservation lands in Southwestern Oregon from location and entry under the United States mining laws, subject to valid existing rights. 

While public support for the proposed Southwestern Oregon Mineral Withdrawal has been overwhelming, there are a few elected officials in Josephine County and some running for elected office who’ve opposed it.

This EPA chart shows that while mine production went down or remained the same, the amount of toxic release increased and little of this was recycles or treated. Graph source USEPA.
This EPA chart shows that while mine production went down or remained the same, the amount of toxic release increased and little of this was recycled or treated. Graph source USEPA.

So they need to hear from you and to be asked these questions. Why would we want to see mining companies (including a foreign owned one) basically take over for their industrial purposes pristine and/or botanically rich National Forest and BLM watersheds that provide drinking water—some of the cleanest in the nation—for thousand of downstream residents in Southwest Oregon and Northwest California? And why would we allow this without even determining if the mining is in compliance with the United States mining laws?

The North Fork Smith River and Rough and Ready and Baldface creeks watersheds and the Hunter Creek and Pistol River headwaters are no place for metal mining. Support the Southwestern Oregon Mineral Withdrawal.

Apologies to readers: A draft of this post was inadvertently made public. It has since been updated and revised. Our sincere apologies for any inconvenience or confusion.

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[1] The Animas River mine disaster was the result of acid mine drainage build up in the underground adits of mines. The Rio Doce disaster was from a tailings dam failure at a large iron ore mine in Brazil. The public doesn’t have adequate information about the potential nickel mines in the headwaters of our rivers to know the risk for pollution but do we want to take that chance? Note that mining of nickel laterites is surface mining and is unlikely to produce acid mine drainage. Both the Animas River and Rio Doce disasters were widely reported in the media. A Google search will bring up lots information.

 

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