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November 12, 2015 11:57 AM UTC

Seize this Opportunity to Reform 1872 Public Lands Mining Law

  • 2 Comments
  • by: PKolbenschlag

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Colorado Senator Micheal Bennet joined with several of his counterparts to introduce mining reform legislation that could help avert future events like the Gold King spill.

Lost in election news, perhaps, and over-coverage of the 2016 horse race, there was not enough attention paid to a significant development in the decades-long effort to reform the antiquated law still governing hardrock mining on America’s public lands.

Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) joined his New Mexican counterpart Senator Tom Udall, and others, to introduce legislation that would begin to reform the General Mining Law of 1872 that still governs this activity on public lands. The release from Sen. Bennet’s website states:

Washington, DC – U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) along with Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced a bill to reform the nation’s antiquated hardrock mining laws. The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 will ensure mining companies pay royalties for the privilege of extracting mineral resources from public lands.

The recent tragic mishap that led to the spill of acidic mine water into the Animas River has drawn new attention to the legacy left behind from tens of thousands of abandoned hardrock mines around the West.

Gold King mine above Silverton dumped a load of acidic mine waste into Cement Creek and the Animas River, when a colossal error by the U.S. EPA breached the dike holding back the toxic water.

Unlike oil and gas or coal gotten off the public lands, which are subject to royalty fees that go to the U.S. treasury, hardrock mining–which includes uranium, gold, silver, copper, molybdenum, etc.–is not subject to such a payment back to the American people that own the public lands.

And since hardrock mining pays no royalty there are no funds specifically earmarked to address the mess historic mining left behind. The reform legislation will help make sure that taxpayers are not left to pay for cleaning up these abandoned mining sites, as the Senator’s release notes:

The bill helps ensure that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for cleaning up abandoned mines, many of which are continuously leaking toxic chemicals into rivers and streams and have the potential for catastrophic disasters like the recent Gold King Mine blowout. The Gold King Mine accident spilled 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers, and communities in New Mexico and Colorado are still struggling to recover from the impact to businesses, farms, and local governments.

In 1872 there was bipartisan support to fulfill the “manifest destiny” to complete the settlement and development of the West. In the wake of this mania, tens of thousands of mines now lie abandoned across the American West. And now there are towns and populations settled across the region.

Along with seeing the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Battle at Little Bighorn, and welcoming the Centennial State into the fold, as President, U.S. Grant also signed the General Mining Law of 1872 that still governs this activity on America’s public lands 143 years later.

The end result, the inevitable outcome, of these abandoned leaking mines was recently shown in the Cement Creek spill above Silverton that fouled the Animas for hundreds of miles downstream.

And put face-to-face with the impacts that result from unmanaged mining waste perched in our mountains, above our farms, and towns and cities below, there may finally be growing bipartisan support to address the toxic legacy our forebears left behind, as the Denver Post reported:

Congress has been giving greater attention to the problem after the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine disaster in southwestern Colorado above Silverton…

The Gold King disaster was “a sudden and devastating reminder of the dangers abandoned mines pose in Colorado and across the West,” Bennet said.

In addition to the reform legislation introduced by Sens. Bennet and Udall, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, who represents the area affected by the Animas spill, along with Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), have introduced so-called “Good Samaritan” legislation to hopefully speed cleanup of the thousands of abandoned mines threatening the West’s water supplies.  A statement on Rep. Tipton’s website reads, in part:

“I am working deliberately and strategically on Good Samaritan legislation with Colorado’s Senators and the impacted communities to ensure the outcome is a bill that stands the best possible chance of becoming law and gets these abandoned mines cleaned up. Anything short of that won’t solve the problem.”

The Good Samaritan law could help facilitate cleanup of these abandoned sites putting our water supplies at risk. But until the ancient law governing hardrock mining is reformed, funding the actual work could remain elusive.

The reform legislation introduced by Sen. Bennet and others would not only ensure the cost of this work is not borne by communities and taxpayers but by the industry that created the problem, it would also give land managers new tools to keep hardrock mining out of areas where it does not belong, as one conservation group noted in its reaction to the reform legislation:

“We thank Senators Udall, Heinrich, Bennet, Wyden, Markey and others for introducing legislation to reform the 1872 Mining Law. If this bill had been law before the Gold King Mine waste disaster the Animas River might never have been polluted, and downstream communities in Colorado and New Mexico might never have suffered.

“After 143 years, it’s long past time for hardrock mining companies to pay their fair share. Just like coal, oil, and gas companies, miners of gold, copper, uranium and other hardrock minerals should pay the public for what they take from public lands. And just like coal, oil and gas companies, hardrock miners should pay a mine reclamation fee. This steady stream of long-term funding is only way to clean up the hundreds of thousands of abandoned and inactive mines, like the Gold King Mine, that litter our country. The $50 billion abandoned mine cleanup bill is far too large to be paid by Good Samaritans alone.

“Perhaps most importantly, this bill saves taxpayer money by allowing land managers to disapprove mines proposed where they don’t belong.”

The effort to reform hardrock mining on public lands, and the 140 + year-old law governing it did not suddenly manifest in response to the Gold King spill. Conservationists, angling groups, and taxpayer advocates have all long urged that Congress address the badly outdated law that make incidents like the Gold King spill inevitable.

And while the spill is a tragic, and toxic, reminder of what is at stake, if it can propel action then at least some good can come from it.  Senator Bennet has taken a big step in working with his colleagues to introduce this legislation. Our other Senator, Cory Gardner, should join him and make 2016 the year the 19th century hardrock mining law is finally relegated to the history books.

 

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