Columns, Environews

Environews: September 2015

By Amy Brunvand

Toxic mine spill points to need for regulation reform

Utah politicians often gripe that mining is over-regulated, but we recently found out what happens when pollution from mining is under-regulated. On August 5, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was attempting to clean up an inactive gold mine near Silverton, Colorado when 3 million gallons of toxic waste spilled into the Animas River, sending a bright orange plume of acidic, heavy metal-contaminated water into Utah’s San Juan River and down to Lake Powell.

Republican politicians have been trying to pin the blame for the spill on EPA, but EPA didn’t create the toxic waste. The toxic mine waste was residual from the General Mining Act of 1872 (still in effect 143 years later) which allows hardrock mining companies to operate on public lands without environmental protection or remediation requirements, exempt from the Clean Water Act, and without paying royalties or severance taxes to mitigate impacts. A consequence of this lack of environmental regulation is that over 40% of the headwaters of rivers in the Western U.S. are polluted by waste from hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines; and taxpayers—not mining companies—are responsible for the cleanup bill.

Nonetheless, Utah legislators Margaret Dayton (R-Orem) and Mike Noel (R-Kanab) made outrageous accusations
that the EPA might have spilled toxic waste on purpose in order to qualify for Superfund money. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes rushed to Colorado to “investigate,” and managed to find a few fellow conspiracy-theorists among the residents. Reyes is threatening lawsuits against EPA for causing the disaster. Zach Frankel of Utah Rivers Council points out that instead of spreading improbable conspiracy theories, it would be more helpful for Utah lawmakers to demand accountability from oil companies that frequently spill toxins into Utah’s rivers.

Despite Republican attempts to divert public attention away from water quality issues, the spill is a wake-up call regarding the need for regulatory reform of hardrock mining. Arizona representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ-X) and Senator Heinrich (D-NM) have introduced the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 in order to change the rules so that the Clean Water Act would apply to mining pollution and mining companies would be required to reclaim mine sites to sustain pre-mining uses.

Utah Rivers Council
Earthworks, 1872 Mining Law Reform


Don’t blame the coyotes; Mule deer and drilling don’t mix

Turns out mule deer and drilling don’t get along. Researchers in Colorado found that mule deer shy away from active drill pads and roads so that more than half of their critical winter range is impacted in areas with oil and natural gas development. Utah’s Mule Deer Protection Act of 2012 offers a bounty on coyote pelts, supposedly to halt continued decline of Utah’s mule deer population from predation, but the evidence points to increased oil and gas development as the real culprit.

Utah legislators are always talking about “environmentally sensitive energy and mineral development” and this research shows what that might actually look like; developers should avoid drilling during winter months when animals have a harder time finding food and they should be required to provide undeveloped refuge habitat where animals can hide.


Envision Utah gets it wrong

The much-ballyhooed Envision Utah public visioning process appears to have been turned into a push-poll for water developers. Envision Utah conducted a statewide survey asking the public to evaluate various scenarios for Utah’s future. The survey result found that people are highly interested in locally grown food and “98% of Utahns want to increase food self-sufficiency from agriculture.” However, the survey leapt to conclusions saying that Utahns are willing to build large, expensive and environmentally destructive water projects in order to subsidize industrial agriculture.

The survey results clearly point to a desire to protect the kind of pastoral working landscape and small farms described by writers like Wendell Berry. Big water projects in Utah mostly support subsidized alfalfa-growing, not the kind local food systems people thought they were supporting when they filled out the survey. The water shortage scenario described in Envision Utah’s water report contradicts a recent Legislative Audit of Utah’s water future which found that conservation and better water management are sufficient to provide for future needs.

Envision Utah survey results


Moab leasing plan

The Utah Bureau of Land Management draft Moab Master Leasing Plan is open for public comment. This plan covers areas near Arches and Canyon lands National Parks, the places that led Tim DeChristopher to his act of civil disobedience protesting inappropriate leasing in 2008. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) sued to block oil and gas leases in this treasured landscape, and the new plan appears to be a step forward to keep energy development away from sensitive lands and popular recreational areas. However, SUWA says that unless BLM gets significant public pressure, places like Labyrinth Canyon and Indian Creek would still be open for leasing. Public comments are due by Thursday, November 19.

Moab Master Leasing Plan (MLP)

Moab MLP Open House: October 6, SLC Public Library, 210 East 400 South 4-7pm

Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance 

This article was originally published on September 1, 2015.