Abandoned Mines and the Shaft

Abandoned Mines and the Shaft

FORESTfall09coverThere are literally more than 59,000 abandoned mines around the West, and no one who is responsible to clean them up. That’s one sticky element that accounts for the long-standing impasse over reform of the country’s Mining Act of 1872. After decades of contention, mining officials and environmentalists claim the mining law could finally get a makeover.

I wrote an article, “Mining for Reform,” on what Congress is looking at to reform the 1872 law in the Fall 2009 issue of Forest Magazine. The issue brought together several articles looking at the consequences of abandoned mines on Western public lands, under the title of “Hardrock Headache.”The mining industry has opposed regulations stricter than those within the 1872 law that would increase costs or liabilities for existing and future mine owners. But environmentalists and other public-interest groups have long argued that mining laws don’t reflect the advent of environmental regulation, so the rules should include production royalties (paid by miners who use public lands, like national forests), a cleanup fund for the abandoned sites, and a list of sensitive areas where mining is prohibited.

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The abandoned Leviathan Mine in California is among the sites that could be restored through a cleanup fund (US EPA)

Here’s a rundown, from my Forest article, on the 1872 law and the somewhat surprising stance of the National Mining Association:

A sweet plum for industry, the law enables companies or individuals to mine for hardrock minerals, including gold, copper and uranium, without paying any royalties to the government. The law also allows mining corporations to pull up stakes without cleaning up the mess they leave behind. For more than a century the law allowed anyone—individual or corporation—to buy, or patent, public lands for mining for as little as $2.50 per acre. Congress approved a moratorium on new patents in 1994 and has reapproved it every year since, but existing claims can still be mined.

Provisions for site reclamation have evolved slightly over the decades, but the absence of strict remediation requirements on public lands has left thousands of abandoned mines oozing toxic metals into adjacent landscapes and streams. Taxpayers ultimately foot the bill for these cleanups, and the total tab to remediate all abandoned hardrock mines on public lands is at least $50 billion, according to Earthworks, a mining-reform advocacy group.

“Nobody can say with a straight face that this law from 1872 shouldn’t be changed,” says Velma Smith of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining.

Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, agrees. “The law needs to be updated,” he says.

The change in attitude from the industry is encouraging, as it has long claimed the law’s provisions are necessary to support the domestic minerals market. But Popovich’s ideas of mining reform differ significantly from those put forth by congressional leaders and supported by environmentalists.

A more recent Associated Press story from January 3 covers the different bills that are getting consideration from Congress right now. Environmentalists, miners and Congress remain hopeful that a bill can move forward, but the larger questions is whether reform will be a giant leap, a baby step, or something still off in the distance. Passage could mean that old, toxic mine sites across the West — like this one (profiled in Forest) and this one (from a Nov. 30, 2009 story from the Colorado Independent) — could finally be restored.

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