Colorado, New Mexico Lawmakers Lead Introduction of Bill to Reform Hardrock Mining Law

Colorado abandoned mines
Colorado abandoned mines

From US Senator Michael Bennet:

Bill Reforms 1872 Mining Law to Help Prevent Future Disasters like Gold King Mine Blowout

Washington, DC – U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) along with Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced a bill to reform the nation’s antiquated hardrock mining laws. The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 will ensure mining companies pay royalties for the privilege of extracting mineral resources from public lands.

The bill helps ensure that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for cleaning up abandoned mines, many of which are continuously leaking toxic chemicals into rivers and streams and have the potential for catastrophic disasters like the recent Gold King Mine blowout. The Gold King Mine accident spilled 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers, and communities in New Mexico and Colorado are still struggling to recover from the impact to businesses, farms, and local governments.

Current mining 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 impose a commonsense royalty – similar to that paid by oil and gas and coal companies for decades – to help pay for abandoned mine cleanup and prevent future disasters. There are up to 500,000 abandoned mines across the West, and cleanup is estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars.

In Colorado alone, there are an estimated 7,100 abandoned mines, including 200 that are leaking thousands of gallons of acid mine drainage per minute, which is equal to at least one Gold King disaster every two days. More than 1,600 miles of the San Juan, Big Thompson, Rio Grande, Mancos, and Arkansas River drainages are affected by untreated mines.

“Three months ago, the Gold King Mine spill provided a sudden and devastating reminder of the dangers that abandoned mines pose in Colorado and across the West,” Bennet said. “Mining has been intrinsically linked to our history, economy, development and culture, but it’s also left scars across Colorado and other states. More than 200 mines in Colorado are leaking acid mine drainage that is polluting headwaters and affecting water quality for communities downstream. Our bill will help clean up these mines and prevent the possibility of future tragedies like the Gold King Mine.”

“Hardrock mining companies have enjoyed a sweetheart deal for nearly 150 years, leaving taxpayers on the hook to clean up hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines leaking toxins and threatening communities across the West,” said Udall, who has pushed for mining reform since he was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998 and passed a unanimous amendment to the Fiscal Year 2013 budget resolution calling on Congress to enact a royalty for mining on public lands. “The Gold King Mine blowout proves that the status quo just isn’t working, and New Mexico and Navajo Nation communities are suffering the consequences. Gold and silver on public lands are a natural resource, just like oil and gas. Taxpayers deserve their fair share of the profit – and communities across the West need that money to clean up abandoned mines.”

“Disastrous spills like the Gold King Mine blowout are easy to see. But the unnoticed toxins leaking out of thousands of abandoned gold, silver, copper, and uranium mines are doing enormous damage to our watersheds every day,” said Heinrich, who recently toured uranium legacy sites in the Navajo Nation. “We must come together and pass commonsense reforms to our outdated and ineffective federal policy on abandoned mines and hardrock mining.”

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M) is a cosponsor of H.R. 963, a similar bill that has been introduced in the House of Representatives. Bennet, Udall, Heinrich, Luján, and members of the Colorado delegation also joined together to introduce the Gold King Mine Spill Recovery Act in the House and Senate to ensure the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compensates those who were impacted by the accident.

The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 will:

  • Set a 2 to 5 percent royalty rate for new mining operations, based on gross income on production.
  • Use royalty revenue and a separate fee of 0.6 to 2 percent to pay for abandoned mine cleanup.
  • Allow states and tribes to receive funding for hardrock reclamation programs, and establish a grant program for other organizations that want to carry out restoration projects.
  • Require permits for non-casual exploration and mining on federal land, and outline requirements for a permit like avoiding acid mine drainage.
  • Require annual rental payments for claimed public land, thereby permanently eliminating patenting and characterizing mine operators as other public land users.
  • Give the Secretary of the Interior the authority to grant royalty relief if economic factors require it.
  • Permit states and tribes to petition the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw lands from mining, and require an expedited review of certain lands to determine whether they are appropriate for future mining.
  • A summary of the legislation can be found HERE.

    From The Durango Herald (Philip Graham):

    “After you see something like this spill into the Animas River, a policy of sitting on our hands and doing nothing is just unacceptable,” Bennet said during the call.

    The new legislation, known as the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015, will make mining companies pay for royalties for extracting resources from public lands. The money would be used to help clean up abandoned mines that are continuing to leak waste into waterways, and ensure that future spills like the Gold King Mine disaster are not rectified at the expense of taxpayers.

    “In the Southwest, water is simply our most precious resource, so you can imagine what kind of impact the Gold King mine spill had on our community,” Heinrich said…

    Bennet and his colleagues agreed that it was time for the hardrock mining industry to pay its fair share. They pointed out that the royalty fees on the mining industry would be a fraction of the coal, oil and gas industry’s rate of 12½ percent.

    “Every other extractive industry pays royalties,” Bennet said. “Hardrock mining companies should pay as well.”

    Bennet added that Colorado has already spent $12 million over the last few years to clean up some of the more serious leaks. The EPA estimates that 230 mines in Colorado are currently leaking toxic chemicals into the state’s waterways, and that it would cost tens of billions of dollars to effectively clean up all mines in the west.

    The proposed bill would serve as the first major change to The General Mining Act of 1872 since it first became law. The Mining Act, passed 143 years ago, continues to govern mining operations on public lands and allows companies to extract minerals from these grounds royalty-free.

    Luján is the cosponsor of a similar mining reform bill that’s already been introduced in the House.

    From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

    Western senators weighed in on the toxic mines problem Thursday, launching legislation to reform the nation’s 1872 Mining Law and require companies to pay fees to create a cleanup fund for abandoned inactive mines.

    The legislation introduced by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and New Mexico Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall would apply to existing and new mining operations. It aims to raise at least $100 million a year.

    The idea is to create a new path — beyond “superfund” responses to environmental disasters — to begin to clean up tens of thousands of inactive mines in western states that continue to taint headwaters of the nation’s rivers. These include an estimated 230 sites in Colorado where state officials have documented bit-by-bit degradation of waterways.

    Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently said that cleaning up abandoned inactive mines just in Colorado would cost billions of dollars.
    Congress has been giving greater attention to the problem after the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine disaster in southwestern Colorado above Silverton, where an EPA crew triggered a deluge of 3 million gallons of mustard-yellow liquid that worsened contamination of the Animas River.

    From the Farmington Daily Times (Noel Lyn Smith):

    U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., introduced legislation Thursday that would impose a federal minerals royalty, establish a reclamation fund for the cleanup of abandoned mines and require a review of lands to determine if those areas are available for future mining.

    The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 comes three months after the Gold King Mine spill released more than 3 million gallons of heavy metals-laden wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers.

    The bill proposes authorizing the U.S. Department of the Interior secretary to determine royalty rates for new mining operations.

    The rate for new mining would be based on the market value of the mineral being extracted and set a 2 to 5 percent rate based on the gross income of production on federal land.

    The bill would also set a separate fee of 0.6 to 2 percent to pay for an abandoned mine cleanup.

    Collected revenues would be deposited into the proposed Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund, which would be administered by the Interior Department, for distribution to federal agencies, states and tribes as long as they have a federally approved reclamation plan.

    The bill also establishes a grant program the Interior Department could use to provide funds to organizations for cleanup activities…

    Luján is a cosponsor of a similar measure that has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

    “The Gold King Mine is part of a much larger problem,” Udall said. “The accident should be a wake-up call to Congress about the dangers we face.”

    Among the dangers is the level of toxins released by abandoned mines that end up in watersheds and rivers that supply communities throughout the West, Udall said.

    Under current law, mining companies — aside from coal, oil and gas — do not pay for the damages they cause, and taxpayers carry the burden, he added.

    “Mining companies have enjoyed a sweetheart deal for far too long,” Udall said.

    Heinrich said there are estimates that 40 percent of watersheds in the West are polluted by toxic mining waste, and reclamation could cost more than $1 billion.

    This reform is a way to address that issue, he said.

    Days after the spill, federal lawmakers visited the impacted areas, including Aztec, Farmington and the Navajo Nation.

    “I think we all share the anger and frustration that was seen in the faces of our constituents,” Heinrich said.

    In terms of the Navajo Nation, Heinrich said he and Udall have been talking to tribal officials about the bill.

    “Those talks are ongoing, and, as you can imagine, they’re very interested in this proposal,” Heinrich said.

    Bennet said the mining activities under the 1872 law have left the West with scars. In Colorado, there are an estimated 7,100 abandoned mines with more than 200 of them leaking acid mine drainage, Bennet said.

    The state has spent $12 million over the last six years to clean up abandoned mines, but only three to four projects are addressed each year, he added.

    This is not the first attempt at reforming the nation’s mining law. The most recent attempt came in 2007, and it was passed by the House but never passed by the Senate.

    Udall said the group hopes all stakeholders will be open to examining the bill and working on its passage, but so far the legislation does not have support from Republicans.

    “We are willing and able and working hard on building bipartisan support on this bill,” Udall said.

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