Reform to 1872 Mining Law Long Overdue

The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act (H.R. 2262) would revamp the 1872 federal law governing hardrock mining (mining for metals and gems, not for coal), and a new article from Business Week reports that the Act has the support of many local officials who worry about mining’s effects on air, water, and tourism.

Industry officials don’t like the House bill – which isn’t surprising, because they’ve been getting such a sweet deal for more than a century. The General Mining Law of 1872 was intended to create incentives for settling the West, and it let miners take minerals from public lands for free. Robert McClure and Andrew Schneider described the uneven exchange in a 2001 Seattle PI article (part of an excellent PI series on mining):

Gold, silver, platinum and other precious metals for free. Land for $5 an acre or less.

That’s the deal mining companies get from the U.S. government when miners turn their explosives and earthmovers toward public land in the West.

It’s pretty much the same deal miners have had for 129 years, ever since Congress approved the General Mining Law in 1872. …

Under terms of the antiquated law, miners cart away everything from gold to kitty litter from public lands — minerals worth about $11 billion in the last eight years alone. Not only does the U.S. Treasury get nothing, Congress has granted miners a tax break worth an estimated $823 million in the coming decade.

Over the years, public lands the size of Connecticut have been made private under terms of the 1872 law, all for $2.50 to $5 an acre, though not all of it has been used for mining. Some claims became ski resorts, housing subdivisions, hotels and even a brothel, in Nye County, Nev.

The problem isn’t just that taxpayers get a paltry sum in exchange for the land. It’s that the companies don’t always clean up the messes they’ve made, and taxpayers can end up on the hook for millions in cleanup costs:

Modern mining methods have left the West pockmarked by huge craters, some so large that they are visible from space. Whole mountainsides are ground to dust and doused with cyanide, teasing out enough gold for a single wedding ring from several tons of rock and soil.

And tens of thousands of abandoned mines scar the landscape, many emitting an orange-red, acid-laced runoff called “yellow boy.” These mines have poisoned more than 16,000 miles of Western streams.

When a mine goes bankrupt, taxpayers sometimes get stuck with the costs of cleaning up the mess — more than $275 million for three mines alone in Colorado, South Dakota and Montana that closed in the 1990s.

The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act would address environmental standards as well as charging royalties to mining companies. Via the Seattle PI’s Lisa Stiffler, here’s an explanation of the new legislation from Rep. Jay Inslee:

The legislation approved today, the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act, H.R. 2262, would overhaul guidelines for mining these and other valuable minerals on federal lands. Most notably, it would improve environmental standards by implementing a careful permitting process and requirements for mine operation and reclamation; end the sale of public lands to developers at 1872 prices ($2.50 to $5 an acre); and, establish an 8 percent gross income royalty on new mineral production and a 4 percent gross income royalty on existing mining operations. These royalties would help fund the estimated $30 to $70 billion needed to clean up abandoned mines.

According to Business Week’s Judith Kohler, the bill faces a rough time in the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid prefers the system that Nevada uses. The nonprofit Earthworks, which backs HR 2262, has more information about the legislation on their site.

It’s amazing that an outdated law that’s a windfall for mining companies and a bad deal for taxpayers and the environment has lasted this long. The fact that it has speaks to the power of those who are benefiting from it, and suggests that reform will be an uphill fight.

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