Congress Sees Lode of Flaws in Mining Law
Brad Knickerbocker writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 federal land.
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For many observers, the law is flawed and outdated.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 critics.
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 is considerable.
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 environmental cleanups."
Another problem is that federal land covered by mining claims can be "patented," allowing their holders to seek other forms of lucrative development. …