Senators launch effort to reform 1872 Mining Law to spur cleanup of abandoned mines

November 5, 2015

The latest reaction to the waste water spill at the Gold King Mine in August was unveiled on Nov. 5 when Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and New Mexico Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall introduced legislation that would reform the 1872 Mining Law by requiring companies to pay fees to create a cleanup fund for abandoned inactive mines.

The legislation would apply to existing and new mining operations. It aims to raise at least $100 million a year.

The idea is to create a new path — beyond "superfund" responses to environmental disasters — to begin to clean up tens of thousands of inactive mines in western states that continue to taint headwaters of the nation's rivers. These include an estimated 230 sites in Colorado where state officials have documented bit-by-bit degradation of waterways.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently said that cleaning up abandoned inactive mines just in Colorado would cost billions of dollars.

The legislation — the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 — would change the 1872 law “by eliminating patenting of federal lands.”

The 1872 law “was written in a completely different era when the government was encouraging people to settle the West,” Bennet said. But the legacy of that approach is that Colorado alone now has at least 7,100 abandoned mines with more than 200 known to be leaking, The Denver Post reported.

The bill would impose a federal minerals royalty on new mines and set up a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund for the cleanup of abandoned mines. Companies also would have to make annual rental payments for use of public land — which they have not had to do under the 1872 law.

Companies running new mines would pay royalties to the government at a rate of 2 percent to 5 percent of the gross income of production on federal land. Those royalties, and an abandoned mine reclamation fee from 0.6 percent to 2 percent on both new and existing mines, would be deposited into the cleanup fund.

But the royalties would not apply to existing mines or those that have a plan of operations approved by the government.

Udall said the reform legislation would enable a start on cleanup but acknowledged funds raised would not be sufficient.

“The needs ... are in the tens of billions,” he said. “This is something we need to get started on right away.”

The Interior Secretary would have discretion to grant relief to companies based on “economic factors,” according to a summary of the legislation.

Mining companies would have to obtain exploration and operations permits for mining on federal land. Those permits would be valid for 30 years. States and tribes would be able to petition the Interior Secretary to declare lands off limits for mining.

The lawmakers said the reclamation fee on new and existing mines would bring in at least $100 million a year. They said they could not estimate how much would come from royalties.

The Government Accountability Office has concluded it could not estimate royalty revenue potential based on available data, senate staffers said. The 1872 law that governs hard-rock mining requires no royalties and does not require mining companies to disclose how much they extract or where they sell minerals or their values.



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