Way back when Ulysses S. Grant was president and George Armstrong
Custer thought he knew how to fight Indians, Congress passed a law
governing the mining of gold, silver, and other hardrock minerals on
At a time when westward expansion was an important national goal,
a miner - typically a Gabby Hayes figure who had his closest
personal relationship with a mule - could file a claim, take virtual
title to the land for as little as $2.50 an acre, and make millions
(or go bust) with Uncle Sam's blessing.
The General Mining Law of 1872 still governs most aspects of
hardrock mining across the West, even though miners these days are
more likely to be multi-billion-dollar corporations - many of them
under foreign ownership.
For many observers, the law is flawed and outdated. They say that
its loose construct has been responsible for unchecked environmental
damage. And, because miners don't have to pay for the valuable
minerals they extract from public lands, taxpayers not only lose
revenues but often have to foot the bill for environmental cleanup.
Now lawmakers on Capitol Hill are touting a new bipartisan proposal,
that, if adopted, promises to reform the mining law to accord with
modern economic and environmental sensibilities.
The problems with the 130-year-old law are many, according to
Unlike those who drill or dig for coal, oil, and gas on public
land, hardrock mining companies pay no royalties to the federal
government. With hardrock minerals estimated to be worth about $1.8
billion a year, even a modest royalty (coal miners pay 8 percent)
would send a considerable sum to the US treasury.
And with miners now wielding giant earth-moving machines instead
of pick axes - in addition to using a cyanide solution to tease out
microscopic bits of gold from tons of ore - the environmental impact
Mine waste is the largest source of toxic pollution in the
country, the Environmental Protection Agency has reported, and about
40 percent of the watersheds in the US are tainted by mine waste.
There are more than 500,000 abandoned mines around the country, and
the cost of cleanup could total $32 billion or more, according to
the Mineral Policy Center, a research and advocacy group in
Washington. The largest Superfund sites in the country are former
mines - many of them owned by companies that went bankrupt and left
American taxpayers with the tab for cleanup.
"The mining industry has the biggest sweetheart deal in the
country," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut. "Mining
companies are not paying royalties for minerals taken from public
lands.... and they haven't had to pay the full price for
Another problem is that federal land covered by mining claims can
be "patented," allowing their holders to seek other forms of
lucrative development. …