Mining Surge Near Colorado River Threatens Drinking Water For 25 Million

(202) 667-6982
For Immediate Release: 
Monday, May 5, 2008

WASHINGTON – Mining claims near the Colorado River have doubled in the last five years, raising fears that the West’s most important waterway – a source of drinking water to 25 million people – could become contaminated by toxic heavy metals, including radioactive uranium waste.

The Colorado, which provides drinking water to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas and other cities, and irrigation water for agriculture in California’s Imperial Valley - one of the nation’s most important sources of food - is under assault by multinational corporations rushing to cash in on record prices for uranium, gold and other metals. Yet under the antiquated 1872 Mining Law, federal officials are virtually powerless to prevent mining even if it would affect the West’s most precious commodity.

An investigation by Environmental Working Group (EWG) of Bureau of Land Management records found that hardrock mining claims within 10 miles of the 1,450-mile-long Colorado have increased from 2,568 in January 2003 to 5,545 in January 2008. In that period, claims within 5 miles of the river more than doubled, from 395 to 1,195.

Recently, the governor of Arizona and the chief of Southern California’s largest water supplier have expressed their concerns to the Bush Administration that uranium mines could mean contamination of the river with toxic mine waste. Under current law, the Secretary of the Interior can intervene to stop a potentially harmful mine, but there is little that other federal and state officials or citizens can do once a claim is staked.

“The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the West,” said EWG Analyst Dusty Horwitt. “It should be protected from pollution by toxic mining waste. We need a federal mining law that places our rivers, national parks and communities off-limits to mining companies.”

In addition, US Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) issued a statement in support of EWG's findings. In the statement, the Senator said, "I believe strict environmental standards should be in place to protect the Colorado River and other critical public resources from contamination due to mining activities. This report underscores the need to reform the 1872 mining law."

Metal mining has a long history of contaminating drinking water. The EPA has reported that mining has contaminated the headwaters of more than 40 percent of Western watersheds. Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified metal mining as the nation’s leading source of toxic pollution for nine consecutive years. And with the likelihood of new mines growing due to soaring metals prices, the Colorado River faces increased risk of contamination.

The House of Representatives passed a comprehensive mining reform bill last fall that would empower federal officials to exercise discretion about where mining occurs, but the Senate, under the leadership of Harry Reid (D-NV), has yet to act on its own version and the legislative calendar is running short.


EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment.