Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

November 8, 2021

Precious Waters: Tribes, Indigenous Peoples, file petition to strengthen federal mining rules

Precious waters

Tribes, Indigenous groups, conservation organizations file petition to strengthen federal mining rules

By Earthworks
Beyond Nuclear International
Censored News

Tribes, Indigenous groups and conservation organizations filed a rulemaking petition on September 16 with the U.S. Department of the Interior to improve and modernize hardrock mining oversight on public lands. The proposed revisions aim to safeguard critically important lands across the West and Alaska, including sacred lands and their cultural resources, vital wildlife habitat, and invaluable water resources.

“It’s long past time to reform the nation’s hardrock mining rules, end generations of mining-inflicted injustice to Indigenous communities, and chart a new course for public lands stewardship toward a sustainable, clean energy economy,” the petition states. “For far too long, mining companies have had free rein to decimate lands of cultural importance to tribes and public lands at enormous cost to people, wildlife, and these beautiful wild places of historic and cultural significance. The harm is undeniable, severe, and irreparable. Reforming these rules will prevent more damage, help us transition to green infrastructure, and leave a livable planet to future generations.”

The petition seeks to significantly update hardrock mining regulations, a need the Biden administration has also identified, to avoid perpetuating the mining industry’s toxic legacy. Current regulations disproportionately burden Indigenous and other disenfranchised communities with pollution and threaten land, water, wildlife and climate. New mining rules would help protect these resources and minimize the damage from the mineral demands of transitioning to a cleaner energy economy.The Unalakleet River is one of the precious water sources where salmon could be pushed into collapse by hard rock mining pollution. (Photo: by mypubliclands/Creative Commons

“Our community is entirely dependent on subsistence from the North, Unalakleet and Nulato Rivers. Yet, due to a combination of climate change and commercial by-catch, these rivers had dismal returns for King, silver and chum salmon this summer,” said Doug Katchatag, president of the Norton Bay Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. “People are scared. Basically, if virtually unregulated mining, as under the current law, is allowed in these watersheds it will combine with these other impacts to push our salmon runs into collapse. This threatens the very existence of our community.”

“The Zortman Landusky mine has devastated the land and waters of our traditional home in Montana’s Little Rockies with acid run-off that will continue forever,” said Andrew Werk Jr., president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community. “Without swift action to meaningfully reform U.S. mining rules, Tribal communities will continue to suffer poisoned water and polluted land. The health and well-being of Tribal people are already disproportionately impacted by abandoned and new mines, and the outdated rules are entirely inadequate to regulate the modern mining industry. We simply cannot afford another hardrock mining disaster and therefore look to the Biden administration for much-needed leadership and accountability.”

“It is unacceptable for mining companies to evade scrutiny and tribal consultation requirements using outdated regulatory loopholes,” said Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris, Jr. “At this very moment, mining projects in Arizona are threatening the permanent destruction of dozens of sacred sites for the Tohono O’odham Nation and other tribes. That is why the Tohono O’odham Legislative Council has unanimously taken a position in support of righting this historic wrong. The time has come for the federal government to uphold its responsibility in ensuring that sacred lands and waters are properly protected.”

“The Havasupai Tribe has fought for decades to protect our beautiful water and traditional cultural lands from the harmful effects of uranium mining,” said Vice Chairman Matthew Putesoy, Sr. of the Havasupai Tribe. “Each day uranium mining threatens contamination of Havasu Creek, which is the sole water source that provides life to Supai Village, our tribal homeland located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Without this precious resource, our Tribe and our homeland will be destroyed. We know that uranium poses a serious and irreversible threat to our survival as a people. This petition is necessary to hold the Department of Interior accountable for meeting its federal trust responsibility and helping to protect our sacred traditional cultural homelands and waters from the harmful and often irreversible effects of mining.”

“For far too long federal officials have failed to do their jobs and protect lands that are sacred to Native Americans and vital for wildlife and life-sustaining waters across the West,” said Allison Melton, a Colorado-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These are common-sense changes to seriously outdated mining rules. The Interior Department must stop pretending it doesn’t have authority to prevent mining industry devastation and start working to preserve a livable planet for future generations.”

“Our nation’s ridiculously outdated mining law from the time of Ulysses S. Grant is only made worse by outdated regulations, which allows reckless pollution by international mining companies, leave taxpayers holding the bill, and endangers Indigenous communities, clean water and priceless American lands,” said Earthjustice’s Blaine Miller-McFeeley. “We are hopeful that the Biden administration will act immediately on our petition and reduce the impact hardrock mining is having on our clean air, water, lands and cultural resources. Reforming our hardrock mining regulations clearly fits within this administration’s focus on environmental justice and climate change.”Children in a Grand Canyon Havasupai village in 1938. The Havasu Creek is the sole water source that provides life to Supai Village, located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. (Photo: Grand Canyon NPS/Creative Commons)

“We face an existential climate crisis, and must move quickly to convert our infrastructure to support low-carbon energy — but we must do so without replacing dirty oil with dirty mining,” said Lauren Pagel of Earthworks. “The Biden administration has an historic opportunity to confront the legacy of injustice to Indigenous communities and damage to the public lands and waters held in trust for all Americans. Seizing that opportunity requires policies that prioritize metals recycling and reuse over new mining. Where new mining is acceptable, the mining industry must undertake the most responsible methods.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the metals mining industry is the single largest source of toxic waste in the United States, and hardrock mines have contaminated an estimated 40% of Western watersheds. Unlike the oil, gas, and coal industries, metal mining companies pay nothing to extract publicly owned minerals from public lands across the West and Alaska.

The Interior Department oversees the regulations governing compliance with federal mining law and other public lands laws. The petition proposes revisions to several mining regulations and includes legal and policy analysis for each proposed improvement.

Overhauling the rules is a critical step toward bringing mining regulations and policy into the 21st century to protect public health and Indigenous and public lands and resources in the West.

Proposed revisions include:
– Clarifying that the BLM must use its authority to protect tribal and cultural resources and values, wildlife, and water quality and quantity;
– Requiring the BLM to verify mining rights;
– Closing loopholes that allow the mining industry to escape public review and consultation with local tribes and governments.

The Interior Department is required to respond to the petition within a reasonable amount of time and indicate whether it will revise the rules.

Earthworks is dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development while seeking sustainable solutions.

Headline photo of Havasu Creek by Grand Canyon NPS/Creative Commons.

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