— Some of the most beautiful national parks in the US are threatened by a mining boom prompted by soaring metal prices, according to an analysis of government data.
Areas surrounding iconic locations in the western US such as Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon risk being intensively mined in coming years, says the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit research organisation based in Washington DC.
Its study draws on data from the governments Bureau of Land Management to identify 2900 new mining claims that have been staked within five miles of national parks since 2003. "This is a modern-day land rush," says Dusty Horwitt, one of the reports authors.
Mining is prohibited within national parks, but Horwitt says nearby activity can damage ecosystems inside the protected areas. At Bingham mine in Utah, for example, sulphates and heavy metals have escaped and now pollute 72 square miles of groundwater.
Mining companies also use cyanide to extract metals such as gold from rocks and this has been known to leak into nearby watercourses.
Mines have always posed a threat to the US's natural environment. The EWG says clean-up costs as a result of existing facilities have been estimated at over $30 billion. But rising metal prices have sparked a new wave of exploration by mining companies. The cost of uranium ore has risen tenfold since 2002 and gold prices have doubled over the same period.
These prices have triggered a rise in the number of plots of land staked out by mining companies called mining "claims". Claims rose from 207,540 in January 2003 to 376,493 in July 2007, according to the EWG. Many are close to treasured locations. Since 2003, more than 800 claims, mostly for uranium, have been staked within five miles of the Grand Canyon, for example.
A claim allows a company to explore for metals. Not all will be exploited, but claim owners can pursue other options such as building properties on the land should they choose not to mine.
The EWG and groups representing climbers and hikers are calling on the US Congress to factor environmental concerns into its ongoing attempt to rewrite mining laws, some of which date back to1872. Central to reforms, say the groups, should be legislation that prohibits mining close to national parks and allows land managers elsewhere to consider the environmental risks before granting claims.
It is high time the laws were modernised, says Jane Danowitz, director of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining in Washington DC. "We need to ensure that wild and scenic areas are off-limits."
New Scientist sought comments from several of the firms mentioned in the EWG report but received no response.