Our Mining Laws Are More Than a Century Old—Time to Update Them

We need a law that balances environmental protection with industry’s needs

My Republican friends on Capitol Hill often complain that our nation’s bedrock environmental laws are out of date. Their argument, which I disagree with, is that laws written in the 1960s and 1970s aren’t relevant in the modern world. 

Unfortunately, their concern about updating laws written in the 1970s doesn’t extend to at least one law from the 1870s. The General Mining Act of 1872 still governs all the mining for gold, silver, copper, and other metals that happens on our federal lands—and the law has hardly been touched since President Ulysses S. Grant signed it 146 years ago. If you think the Clean Air Act needs updating, imagine keeping our air clean with a law written just after the Civil War. 

Unfortunately, Republicans don’t want to reform the most nonsensical provisions of this legal dinosaur. Paying $5 an acre for public land containing precious metals probably sounded reasonable in 1872; today, it’s a license to rip off the American people. During the pick-and-shovel prospector days, allowing hard rock mining on federal land without requiring miners to pay any royalties may have helped settle the West. But the idea outlived its usefulness a century ago.

Our antiquated mining laws have left us stuck giving away public assets at rock-bottom prices to profitable companies, many of which are foreign-owned, without providing any direct benefit to the taxpayers. Defenders of the 1872 law say we need to keep this broken system going because it creates jobs. But that doesn’t fly—Congress needs to set a higher bar. Federal policy must be about more than shoveling massive subsidies to industries that are, in many ways, already taking advantage of the public. 

That’s why I just introduced the Hardrock Leasing and Reclamation Act of 2018with my Democratic colleague Representative Alan Lowenthal of California. Mining is a major industry across our western states, and it’s long past time our mining laws caught up with reality. Among other measures, we propose creating a 12.5 percent royalty on new federal mining operations and an 8 percent royalty on existing operations. Those royalty rates are below what the federal government charges the oil and gas industry for fossil fuel extraction on public lands. If Exxon can afford such rates, then so can Barrick Gold, Rio Tinto, and other foreign mining conglomerates that take precious metals from U.S. public lands.

Under our plan, the additional federal revenue goes toward cleaning up abandoned hard rock mines around the country. For well over a century, companies have been able to mine a site until they didn’t think they could profit from it any longer, then declare bankruptcy and walk away, leaving taxpayers holding the bag for cleaning up toxic metals, polluted water supplies, and anything else they happened to leave behind. Hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines litter the American West, and at current funding levels it will take more than 500 years to clean up all of them. Our bill requires polluters to clean up these sites and ends the industry’s walkaway culture by establishing strong new reclamation standards and bonding requirements to make sure that mine abandonment never happens again. 

Just as important, we give federal agencies the power to say “No” to a mining company’s demands. Right now, federal law puts mining on a pedestal when it comes to how we use our public lands. Under current laws and policies, federal agencies are expected to treat any new mining request as a sacred right, not as one option among many worth considering. In the 1870s that wasn’t much of a problem. But today’s Westerners have other things they’d like to do on public lands—camping, hiking, fishing, hunting, or simply appreciating their tremendous beauty. Our bill gives land managers the long overdue authority to consider mining in light of the broader uses of the land and approve or reject a proposal accordingly.  

There’s no good reason Republicans should oppose these kinds of common sense reforms. The logic behind this bill is the same logic Republicans say they’re applying to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and all the other environmental laws they say need updating—except in this case, the law we’re fixing is a century older than those bedrock environmental statutes. The General Mining Act has needed fixing for decades, but for many reasons, including the power of the industry’s lobbyists, it has never happened.

Our bill has something for just about everyone. It would mean fewer toxic mine sites, less wasted taxpayer money, stronger environmental protections in wild and sensitive areas, and some sanity in how government agencies manage our federal lands. What it would mean, in other words, is finally creating a modern mining system in this country that provides some real benefit for everyday Americans, not simply mining executives. It’s about time. 

By:  Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.)
Source: SIERRA Magazine