1872 mining law

Peter Dykstra: The steal of the last century and a half

The General Mining Law of 1872 turned 150 this month. It hasn’t changed a bit.

For sustained, systemic swindle, May 10, 1872, may be the top of the heap for Congress. And by the top, of course, I mean the bottom.


The Civil War had ended only seven years earlier. Efforts to unravel Reconstruction in the South were well underway. Three years to the day earlier, the driving of the Golden Spike completed the Transcontinental Railroad, hastening the white settling of the West and the displacement of Native Americans.

The riches of the American West were laid bare: massive grazing lands, vast forests, and yet-undiscovered mineral wealth. The General Mining Law of 1872 allowed hard-rock mineral claims in public lands for the cost of about $5 an acre—about $115 in today’s dollars. And the price tag hasn’t increased. Not in 150 years.

I used to be fond of saying that an acre of rights for gold, silver, or platinum could be had for the price of a family-sized bag of Doritos, but no more. Inflation has grown the Doritos price. The gold, silver, or platinum, not so much. Add to the bounty the so-called “rare earths” like lithium, vital in high tech industries.

Toxic wastewater

Claimants owe the U.S. taxpayers nothing in royalties, and nothing in cleanup costs for the staggering amounts of contaminated water and tailings left behind. Thousands of abandoned mines now litter the West. They’re left behind by long-vanished mine operators or foreign-based firms beyond the reach of state or federal regulators.

In 2019, the advocacy group Earthworks pitched a major overhaul of the 1872 law, including substantial procedures to restore explored and mined sites, and a minimum 12.5% royalty on extracted minerals.

That same year, an Associated Press investigation found millions of gallons of toxic wastewater flowing from abandoned mine sites daily—potentially into streams, wells, and other drinking water sources.

Aging ungracefully 

In late 2021, the Democrats’ razor-thin majority presented the best chance in years to update the 1872 law.

That chance was killed by two Democrats, Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto and, you guessed it, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. Coal is not covered by the 1872 law, by the way.

So the 1872 Mining Law ages further, and no more gracefully, fouling waterways and fleecing taxpayers, all in one fell swoop.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at pdykstra@ehn.org or @pdykstra.

His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo: Abandoned Eagle Mine, Tennessee Pass, Colorado.

Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Canadian species at risk of extinction
Jen Newman/Flickr

Thousands of species are at risk of extinction in Canada

The most comprehensive assessment yet of wild species in Canada shows a pressing need for action in the lead-up to United Nations global biodiversity conference.

One man’s determined fight for solar power in rural Ohio

What happens when state experts on renewable energy defer to local opposition despite the threats posed by climate change?

The best climate change charities for 2022 and 2023

These are 8 of the most high-impact, cost-effective, evidence-based organizations. You may not have heard of them.

How UK architecture has made homes vulnerable to extreme heat and cold

Climate change is not an abstraction but felt immediately and painfully in homes — which are under ever greater scrutiny as the UK seeks solutions to the challenges of weather extremes.

Ancient virus revived from Russian permafrost after 48,500 years

The virus, a Pandoravirus, had been lying dormant in Russia's permafrost. The study sheds light on the dangers of climate change awakening prehistoric diseases from permafrost.

Climate change will make migration levels soar in the future, says former MI5 boss

Climate change will cause waves of migration that will make current levels seem like “nothing”, a former MI5 boss has said.

From our Newsroom
population environmental

Op-ed: What the media gets wrong about the new world population numbers

The last time that we lived within the productivity limits of our planet was about 50 years ago — that is a problem.

katharine hayhoe

Peter Dykstra: Journalists I’m thankful for

My third annual list of the over-achieving and under-thanked.

sperm count decline shanna swan

A new analysis shows a “crisis” of male reproductive health

Global average sperm count is declining at a quicker pace than previously known, chemical exposure is a suspected culprit.

WATCH: The latest evidence of widespread sperm count decline

WATCH: The latest evidence of widespread sperm count decline

"Pregnant women, and men planning to conceive a pregnancy, have a responsibility to protect the reproductive health of the offspring they are creating."

sperm count decline

Frequently asked questions on the new sperm count decline study

Sperm counts are declining everywhere — the implications are huge.

midterm elections

Peter Dykstra: Environmental takeaways from Election Day

What happened and, perhaps more importantly, what didn’t happen?

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.