1872 Mining Law Hamstrings Cleanup, Critics Say

Article excerpt

Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard


Taxpayers have scant control over mining companies that dig on federal land. And when those companies disappear and leave a mess behind, taxpayers are stuck with the bill.

That's the controversial state of affairs that has prevailed since President Ulysses S. Grant signed the nation's mining policy into law 134 years ago.

The 1872 law was meant to entice prospectors and settlers to the West, so it freely gives all the gold, silver, copper, mercury and other minerals on federal lands to any enterprising company that can haul them away.

The law gave away timber on mining land, too, until mid-1950s reforms discontinued the practice. And miners could buy the surface land over their claims for $5 an acre clear up until 1994.

Sen. Wayne Morse, D-Ore., denounced the law in the middle of the last century; Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., lambasts it now.

These days, critics focus on the lack of environmental safeguards in the law and the public's inability to stop a mining operation on federal land, even if it's feared to cause irreparable harm.

"It's absolutely amazing that the law has survived to this day, and it's still the law of the land," said Ken Marcy, a Seattle-based manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "It's pretty insane."

Modern messes

Critics say the 1872 law leaves Oregon's federal lands open to exploitation when world mineral prices spike, as they are doing this year.

Today, no commercial-scale metals mines are in operation. Still, the potential for large-scale mines flash like gold in the eyes of would-be miners.

The recent history of the Formosa mine in Douglas County shows just how bad a mess miners can make. During a meteoric rise in metals prices, Canadian start-up Formosa Exploration Inc. launched the mine on federal and private land, then folded 2 1/2 years later as prices slumped, leaving an environmental quagmire.

Formosa Exploration's Canadian parent company was formed on the Vancouver, British Columbia, stock exchange, where ephemeral mining companies arise and disappear, said Roger Flynn of the Western Mining Action Project, a nonprofit law firm that specializes in mining.

The Vancouver exchange - now merged with the Toronto exchange - eventually delisted Formosa's parent company for failing to file financial reports.

"People will try to raise money fast," Flynn said. "They invest in a mine where, maybe, the mineral value is inflated or environmental problems are low-balled, or they don't talk about the public opposition."

And when the going gets tough, the companies dissolve.

The phenomenon was so pronounced by the late 1990s that the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. documented environmental disasters around the world made by Canadian mining firms. The documentary title: "The Ugly Canadian."

This spring, the market-driven interest in mining has quickened - worldwide, and in Oregon.

Copper has reached its highest price since recordkeeping began in the late 19th century. Zinc rose 80 percent in the past year. Gold soared to 25-year highs of $700 an ounce in May.

Companies are rehabilitating old mines from Colorado to Alaska. Oregon officials report nibbles of interest in old claims in this state.

Prospectors are even sniffing around the blighted Formosa mine, state Department of Environmental Quality officials say.

"Metal prices are so high right now that if this was running, it would make a tremendous amount of money," said Jay Wilson, a technician who worked there in the 1990s. "There's still a substantial resource there."

In the Bohemia Mining District in Lane County, lumberman Cliff Brown said he is negotiating to sell to a global mining company a 50-acre mining site where he owns both the underground minerals and the surface land. …