BACK when the country's law on hardrock mining was signed by
President Ulysses S. Grant, most miners looked like Gabby Hayes --
grizzled and leathery, with a pickax and mule. That was 1872.
Today, that law still governs an industry now featuring
humongous machines, foreign investors, and billions of dollars a
year in commerce.
Critics argue that this makes it too easy for big corporations
to get title to federal land for $5 or less an acre and then
extract gold, silver, copper, platinum, and uranium without having
to pay royalties.
Industry supporters say hardrock mining remains a high-risk
business requiring huge expenses, and they assert that radically
changing the 19th-century law could put tens of thousands of miners
out of work and send US investments abroad.
In a committee hearing today, the Senate takes up two very
different attempts to update the Mining Law of 1872.
A bill authored by Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho imposes a net
royalty of 3 percent on hardrock mining, and it requires miners to
pay "fair-market value" for the surface value of mine claims before
obtaining a "patent," or title, to the land. State governments,
which would receive two-thirds of the royalties, would have prime
responsibility for land reclamation and other environmental
The Craig bill exempts "small miners" (those grossing less than
$500,000 per year) from paying the royalty, and companies that
obtain patents within an 18-month period after passage of the law
also would be exempt from royalties.
The mining industry likes Senator Craig's bill. National Mining
Association president Richard Lawson says it "takes care of the
environmental concerns expressed by some and it protects those
economic requirements necessary to keep the US mining industry
viable and competitive." John Lutley, president of the trade
association, The Gold Institute, calls it "a balanced and
responsible approach to mining law reform."
Critics call it something else again.
"This bill would do nothing to resolve the most glaring
shortcomings of the existing 1872 Mining Law," says Interior
Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "It continues the giveaway of valuable
publicly owned hardrock minerals like gold, silver, and platinum
for peanuts." The 3 percent royalty fee, Mr. Babbitt says, "is
likely to be a net-revenue loser to the taxpayer."
The Mineral Policy Center, a Washington-based research and
advocacy organization, warns that under the Craig measure "the
federal government would be liable for cleanup costs at failed
sites, with no authority to prevent problems. …