New report documents legacy of extractive pollution in the West, calls for reforms

Aug 10, 2023

‘Backyard Problems’ highlights examples of the negative impact extractive industries have on the environment and human health

DENVER—Across the West, mining companies as well as oil and gas producers have left toxic messes that have yet to be cleaned up—as well as sources of pollution that may never be fully eliminated.

A new report from the Center for Western Priorities, Backyard Problems, looks at a number of these sites to highlight the risks involved with mining and drilling in the West, making a strong case for strengthening environmental safeguards and reforming outdated laws in order to better protect Western communities and the environment. These outdated laws include the 151-year-old General Mining Act of 1872 and the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920.

The Biden administration is currently updating federal rules that govern how drilling occurs on public lands, as well as creating a federal rule to better balance conservation with extraction on public lands. The Backyard Problems report shows that these efforts are necessary and urgent. But they are not enough.

The Backyard Problems report also highlights the fact that modern environmental laws, like the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, are only as good as their enforcement. Finally, the Backyard Problems report makes the case for increasing bonding requirements for both drilling and mining projects so that taxpayers are not stuck with the cleanup costs.

The Center for Western Priorities released the following statement from Policy Director and report co-author Rachael Hamby:

“Westerners’ backyards are littered with contamination left behind by mining and oil and gas companies that made toxic messes and then walked away. After more than 150 years of mining and drilling, we’ve had more than enough time to learn from the mistakes of the past. Yet when it comes to the laws that govern resource extraction, very little has changed. 


“Whenever extractive industries propose projects, I can’t help but think we’ve seen this movie before, and in some cases we’ve seen the same movie in the same theater. As the sites highlighted in this report show, mining and oil and gas companies’ track records are anything but positive when it comes to prioritizing human and environmental health. 


“Westerners have suffered these environmental and health impacts, and shouldered the costs of cleanup, for far too long. We owe it to future generations to update our approach to mining and drilling to reflect lessons learned. It’s time to bring our laws and policies into the 21st century to protect Western communities and landscapes from irresponsible mining and drilling.”

map with pins in it showing sites

The Backyard Problems report case studies include:

  • The Bridger pipeline spill in Montana
  • Anaconda Copper Co.’s Washoe Smelter in Montana
  • The Berkeley Pit in Montana
  • The Zortman-Landusky Superfund site in Montana
  • The Stibnite Gold Project in Idaho
  • The White Mesa uranium mill in Utah
  • The Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project in Utah
  • Methane waste in the Permian Basin in New Mexico
  • Uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation
  • The Pinyon Plain uranium mine in Arizona
  • The Gold King Mine spill in Colorado
  • Oil spills and leaks by K.P. Kauffman in Colorado



Featured image: White Mesa Mill, Courtesy EcoFlight