It’s up to all of us to watchdog mining companies and support our local governments

A Canadian mining company recently made a play to sneak past state and county regulations to exploit our local natural resources. Had they been successful in their “vested rights” claim, the mining company, US Copper, would have been allowed to bypass the environmental reviews and public hearings that allow the potential dangers of mining to be brought to light and discussed. An open pit mine in this location would threaten our local watershed at the headwaters of the Feather River, which in turn supplies water to 27 million people and 700,000 acres of agricultural land.

Thanks to public participation, the planning department listening to and acting upon people’s concerns, and exemplary leadership from the county’s planning and zoning administrators throughout this matter, the mining company was forced to withdraw its proposal for vested rights to the Engels and Superior mines – for now. But as demand increases for minerals for today’s technology, especially lithium and copper, mining companies will increasingly attempt to deploy unscrupulous, profit-driven tactics. US Copper is likely to come back, drawn by the billions of dollars’ worth of copper in the North Arm of Indian Valley.

Plumas County has the dubious honor of being rich with copper, gold, silver and other sought-after minerals. As county residents, it’s up to all of us to pay attention and monitor mining companies, and it’s up to our local governments to make sure the mining companies follow rules designed to protect life, health and wellbeing. Our local governments need to follow their own rules too. We must play the role of watchdog, continuing to demand that our watersheds are protected and that our natural resources are used wisely.

Neglecting to thoroughly understand the impacts of a large mining project could spell disaster for every community in our nation that is located close to or downstream from open pit sites. Mining without appropriate environmental review and mitigation can have devastating impacts on local residents and far-away populations alike. Mining can pollute the surrounding land and water with mercury, cyanide, arsenic, lead and acids. It is one of the most destructive industries in the world.

There are plenty of examples of mining operations causing widespread air, water, and soil pollution, water supply problems and destruction of Indigenous lands and wildlife habitat. Take Thacker Pass, a massive open-pit lithium mine currently under construction in northern Nevada. As an essential component of electric vehicle batteries, lithium is a hot commodity to fuel the green energy transition. But this mine could draw down and contaminate groundwater, pollute the air with sulfuric acid and destroy sacred sites and other important Native American land uses.

Another current controversy relates to a new lithium project near the Salton Sea that has the potential to create health hazards from diesel fumes, dust and hazardous waste in an area where economically disadvantaged residents already suffer elevated rates of asthma and heart disease. With the increasing demand for copper and lithium, no place is truly safe from the destruction of the mining industry.

Back home in Plumas County, there are problems at some mining facilities where the county is not adequately following Surface Mining and Reclamation Act inspection regulations. There are also questions about the legality of some of the county’s previous vested rights determinations. The county needs to enforce its existing rules and regulations – and residents need to hold them accountable for doing so.

It appears to be common practice for mining companies to prioritize extraction and profit over the health and safety of communities where they work. Given our relative isolation as a small mountain community, it will be up to us to determine what kind of extraction activities we want to allow in our backyards, and what kinds of public health and the environmental protections we’re going to expect if such activity continues.

This issue reaches far beyond our local watershed. The water quality for millions of people downstream of us is affected that what happens in our watershed. And proposed federal legislation would make it easier for mining companies to streamline projects. If more mineral extraction is the answer to creating clean energy, how are we going to proceed without polluting our world? We must change the way we mine, lest we destroy much more than we save.

If we are to meet our country’s energy needs, mining is certain to be a growing industry in the years to come. We must ensure that local mining operations respect our communities and our environment, be held to the highest levels of environmental review and mitigate any negative impacts. Failure to properly regulate local mining could have a devastating impact on our region and beyond.

About Dan Kearns
Dan Kearns is a member of the Feather River Watershed Alliance, a grassroots organization that formed to oppose the potential granting of vested rights to a foreign mining company by Plumas County officials. The FRWA continues to monitor and support Plumas County around issues pertaining to the health and wellbeing of the water that flows from our lands.