By Stephanie Woodard, In These Times
Tribal chairman Joseph Holley looks out over the magnificent sweep of Nevada hills and mountains where his Western Shoshone people have thrived for millennia. Grey-green and bright-yellow shrubs embellish the carpet of golden fall grasses stretching to the horizon. As we traverse the area, driving and hiking, Holley points out scars on the cherished land.
He shows me battered metal contraptions marking long-shuttered mines. Active mines are gigantic, steep-sided craters; widely spaced bars cover their dangerously long airshafts. We keep our kids close by in these areas,” Holley says. They could easily fall through.”
The access road to one mine destroyed stands of medicinal plants cultivated by an ancient Western Shoshone doctor. A mine’s crew gouged a trench across a hill where tribal members seek visions. Centuries-old rock shelters and hunting blinds have been demolished.
Holley has long spoken out against the hundreds of mines—for gold, silver, copper, barite and other minerals—that have torn up much of his tribe’s ancestral landscape. He says mining is killing his people. It’s taking away our culture. It’s taking away our places of spirituality.” He describes it as a slow death, occurring over generations.
These operations are called hardrock mines, which unearth metals and minerals other than coal and other fuels. In addition to damaging the land, the hardrock-mining industry is a major source of toxic waste in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Cyanide, arsenic, mercury, acids and other substances used to obtain and process ore seep into aquifers and rivers, foul the land and are carried on the wind. After a century-old copper-mining facility on the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona closed in, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services found the mine had added enough arsenic to local drinking water to cause nausea—and skin, bladder and lung cancers.
The General Mining Law of set the stage for today’s profit-driven destruction by allowing hardrock miners—individual and corporate, foreign and domestic—to pay minimal fees to stake a claim, submit no royalties on their takings and do little or no cleanup afterward. Unlike coal miners, who pay the federal government between 8% and 12.5% of the gross value of what they have produced, hardrock miners have tendered no royalties on $300 billion’s worth of minerals extracted from public land over 150 years.