Mining, regardless of the method (surface or underground) or the resource (metals, coal, or other minerals), involves the separation of a geological strata or valuable ore from the earth. In all of its forms, mining requires extensive capital and specialized machines and labor forces. Because mining frequently occurs over large geographic areas it can alter the hydrogeology and landscape of the area in which it occurs. As a consequence, there is a large body of common law and many statutory programs that define the property rights of persons engaged in mining, and control the environmental effects and safety practices of mining.
The ranks of “mining lawyers” typically involve specialists in mineral property acquisition and leasing, labor, employment and mine safety law, and environmental law. In the eastern United States, mining typically occurs on private property and often on tracts where title to the minerals has been severed from the surface. The predominant resources mined are coal, aggregates, iron ore, and salt. In the west, these same resources are recovered, but “hard rock” mining for precious metals (gold and silver), common metals (copper), and specialty minerals predominates. Unlike the eastern United States, most of the mining occurs on property owned by the agencies of the federal government.
Environmental practitioners serving the mining industry in the east should have a working knowledge of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and comparable state laws, the Clean Water Act and specifically the § 402 (NPDES) and § 404 (fill discharges) programs, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Protection Act. Western practitioners should have this same background as well as a familiarity with the General Mining Law, the Mineral Leasing Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.