Mining Companies Have Used These Loopholes In The 1972 Clean Water Act To Treat Steams and Wetlands Like Toxic Chemical Dumps

The 1972 Clean Water Act prohibited mining companies from dumping their waste into rivers, lakes, and streams. That is, it did, until a 1996 initiative created a loophole that allowed miners to begin using public waterways as waste dumps.

America’s approach to wetlands protection previously relied on a policy calling for “No Net Loss” of wetlands—a policy that
originated with the first Bush administration, according to the National Resources Defense Council.

Pollution from mining muddies a freshwater stream.
Source: Adobe Stock/Alpar
Pollution from mining muddies a freshwater stream.

In 2001, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moved to reverse this long-standing policy by issuing a new guidance. As the National Wildlife Federation reports, dramatically weakened standards for wetlands “mitigation” took the place of NNL. The change was issued without any public notice or coordination with other federal agencies responsible for wetlands protection, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

This move came two years after a study by the Army Corps of Engineers and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale found that, “Wetland mitigation banking inevitably leads to geographic relocation of wetlands, and therefore changes, either positively or negatively, the functions they perform and ecosystem services they provide.”

Mining companies are treating natural streams and rivers like toxic waste dumps.
Source: Adobe Stock/Kirill Gorlov
Mining companies are treating natural streams and rivers like toxic waste dumps.

The NNL reversal was followed by other problematic rule changes, Earthworks reports, including an expanded definition of “fill material” under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to include mine waste, and the obligation for mining operations to designate natural lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands as “waste treatment systems,” exempt from the Clean Water Act.

Mining pollution leaves dark marks on the natural landscape.
Source: Adobe Stock/ArtEvent ET
Mining pollution leaves dark marks on the natural landscape.

Each of these changes has made it far easier for developers and mining companies to destroy more streams and wetlands.

“While it is cheaper for the mining company to dump mine waste in lakes and streams, it is an unnecessary and irresponsible way of doing business,” Earthworks maintains. “For over 30 years, the mining industry operated without these loopholes.”

Mining pollution leeches into nearby water systems.
Source: Adobe Stock/Lukas
Mining pollution leeches into nearby water systems.

Mining companies are now taking advantage of the loopholes and dumping their toxic waste into America’s bodies of water—fueling pollution and creating monumental health problems for both humans and animals.

As River Network reports, mines release dangerous substances such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, cyanide, zinc or mercury that are harmful to fish, wildlife and humans. These toxic compounds also leech into waterways, killing almost every living thing downstream.

Acid mining drainage can kill off fish and riparian life downstream.
Source: Adobe Stock/S.Z.
Acid mining drainage can kill off fish and riparian life downstream.

This chemical pollution and physical stress on stream ecosystems can lead to a loss of biodiversity. Acid mining drainage (AMD) has already eliminated fish completely from some rivers and streams, while others support only a few species that manager to tolerate the acidic environment.

According to the EPA, AMD is currently the main pollutant of surface water in the mid-Atlantic region. Making matters worse:

  • Mine drainage is metal-rich water formed from chemical reaction between water and rocks containing sulfur-bearing minerals.
  • The runoff formed is usually acidic and frequently comes from areas where ore or coal mining activities have exposed rocks containing pyrite, a sulfur bearing mineral.
  • Metal-rich drainage can also occur in mineralized areas that have not been mined.
Mine drainage is metal-rich water formed from chemical reaction between water and rocks containing sulfur-bearing minerals.
Source: Adobe Stock/Roman
Mine drainage is metal-rich water formed from chemical reaction between water and rocks containing sulfur-bearing minerals.

Join the rapidly growing number of environmental stewards in calling on the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to close these loopholes. Click the button below and demand clarifications to the 1972 Clean Water Act limiting the waste treatment system exclusion to only manmade waters, revising the 2002 definition of “fill” to once again exclude waste disposal, and refocusing wetlands conservation efforts under a “No Net Loss” policy.

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