Senators Introduce Bill to Reform Antiquated Hardrock Mining Laws
Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act will ensure mining companies pay their fair share and prevent future disasters like Gold King Mine blowout
WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) introduced the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2017, legislation to modernize the nation’s antiquated hardrock mining laws. The bill requires companies to pay royalties for the first time for the ability to extract mineral resources like gold, silver, and copper from public lands, helps ensure that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for cleaning up abandoned mines, and seeks to prevent another toxic spill like the Gold King Mine disaster of 2015. The Gold King Mine blowout spilled 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers, and communities in New Mexico and Colorado are still waiting for compensation for the damage to their businesses and farms.
“It’s time to end the antiquated sweetheart deal that hardrock mining companies have enjoyed for nearly 150 years,” said Udall, who has fought for mining reform continuously since he was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998. “Like oil, gas, and coal producers, mining companies need to pay their fair share, but because our mining laws date back to the Gold Rush era, it’s the taxpayers who are on the hook for cleaning up hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines that are poisoning our watersheds and threatening our communities. The Gold King Mine disaster – and the harm it has caused to Navajo Nation and New Mexico communities – show why we need to bring our laws into the 21st century. We no longer travel West by covered wagon and oxen, and our mining laws should no longer favor Manifest Destiny and the domination of the continent. This legislation will help communities across the West clean up these dangerous abandoned mines, and ensure that taxpayers are getting their fare share of the profit from resources mined on public lands.”
“Toxins leaking out of thousands of abandoned hardrock mines threaten public health and damage our watersheds every day,” said Heinrich. “In the Southwest, water is our most precious resource and we cannot continue to do nothing while toxic metals are drained into our rivers and drinking water supplies. We cannot wait to take action until another Gold King Mine disaster strikes again. It is time that Congress overhaul our outdated and ineffective federal hardrock mining policy so taxpayers aren’t the ones on the hook when something goes wrong. We must come together and pass these pragmatic reforms to stop future disasters, and protect the health of our communities, our land, and our water.”
"The Gold King spill continues to be a reminder of the threat that abandoned mines pose," said Bennet. "Hardrock mining is a part of our heritage in Colorado, but it is long past time to reform our antiquated mining laws. This bill would provide the resources necessary to help clean up the thousands of abandoned mines in Colorado, improve water quality, and prevent a future disaster for downstream communities."
“Private companies that profit from mining on public lands ought to pay for using those lands and for cleaning up the messes they’ve created,” said Wyden. “This common-sense legislation would update a century-old law to make sure hardrock mining companies no longer get a free ride when it comes to cleaning up abandoned mines, which threaten public safety and the environment.”
“Huge multinational mining companies can extract gold, silver and other valuable hardrock minerals right now that belong to American taxpayers without paying a dime under a mining law passed after the Civil War,” said Markey. "The mining law of 1872 isn’t just outdated, it’s outrageous. We need to ensure that these large mining companies pay their fair share to mine on public lands so that we have the revenue to protect public health and the environment by cleaning up the hundreds of thousands of dangerous, toxic abandoned mines in Western states.”
An estimated half million abandoned hardrock mines like the Gold King are scattered across the West, many leaking toxic chemicals and threatening downstream communities. Yet taxpayers are on the hook to cover the $20 billion-$50 billion it would cost to clean up the mines. The lawmakers' bill offers a common-sense solution to take the burden off taxpayers.
Current law dates back to 1872 and allows companies to take gold, silver, copper, uranium and other minerals from public land without paying any royalties. The lawmakers' bill would update the law and impose a common-sense royalty on hardrock mining companies — similar to that paid by oil and gas and coal companies for decades — to help pay for abandoned mine cleanup and prevent future disasters.
The bill is also supported by U.S. Representative Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.). Udall, Heinrich, Bennet, Wyden, Markey, and Luján championed similar House and Senate bills in 2015.
“The Gold King Mine spill was a painful reminder of the legacy of hardrock mining in the West that has resulted in thousands of abandoned mines that contain toxic materials,” said Luján. “That’s why I am working with my colleagues in the House on similar legislation to update outdated laws that have left the American people to bear the brunt – and the cost -- of addressing the damage that has been done to our land and water. We must act to ensure that mining companies contribute to the much-needed effort to clean up abandoned mines.”
The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2017 would:
- Require hardrock mining companies to pay an annual rental payment for claimed public land, similar to other public land users.
- Set a royalty rate for new operations of 2 percent-5 percent based on the gross income of new production on federal land (would not apply to mining operations already in commercial production or those with an approved plan of operations).
- Create a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund for abandoned mine cleanup. The fund would be infused by an abandoned mine reclamation fee of 0.6 percent-2 percent.
- Give the Secretary of the Interior the authority to grant royalty relief to mining operations based on economic factors.
- Require an exploration permit and mining operations permit for noncasual mining operations on federal land, valid for 30 years and as long as commercial production occurs.
- Permit states, political subdivisions, and Indian Tribes to petition the Secretary of the Interior to have lands withdrawn from mining.
- Require an expedited review of areas that may be inappropriate for mining, and allow specific areas be reviewed for possible withdrawal.
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