WASHINGTON D.C. – When President Barack Obama recently proposed his $4.1 billion budget for the 2017 fiscal year, there was little surprise that it included a proposal for a hard-rock mining royalty fee to help remediate abandoned mines across the country.
Beginning in 2011 with his 2012 fiscal year budget, updating the General Mining Law of 1872 has been a priority in his yearly budget proposals. And each year, the proposal has been cut.
The 1872 mining law, which allows hard-rock mining companies to extract minerals without paying the government a royalty fee, has not been significantly updated since signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant.
Steve Moyer, vice president for government affairs with the nonprofit Trout Unlimited, said the outdated law needs reform but faces external obstacles.
“1872 mining reform opens up this whole question of mining economics on federal lands, and that’s a very complex question where there are lots of factors,” Moyer said.
“Commodity prices for gold and silver are a big part of it. The health of the mining industry and what it’s doing on federal land is another question. And the whole politics of the mining industry also comes out.”
When the Gold King Mine spill in August sent 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers, it shined a national spotlight on the legacy of the estimated 161,000 abandoned hard-rock mining sites across the 12 western states and Alaska.
Although the spill was inadvertently caused by Environmental Protection Agency contract workers, it demonstrated the volume of toxic waste trapped in or seeping out of abandoned mines.
Among the issues raised by the disaster was the lack of a remediation fund to help clean up leaking mines. Thanks in large part to a royalty fee on coal production, the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement oversees a successful Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to help clean up abandoned coal mines that adversely impact the environment.
Because no such royalty fee is imposed upon hard-rock mining operations, many of these similar sites – outside of those with Superfund status – lack cash to perform full-scale cleanups.
Legislative efforts to reform the 1872 mining law and establish a royalty fee and remediation fund similar to coal mining have stalled in Congress, with opposition from the mining industry.
On the three-month anniversary of the Gold King Mine spill, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., along with New Mexico Democrats Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, introduced the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 to modernize the 1872 mining law.
Under the legislation, mining companies would be charged a royalty fee on new mines and a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund would be established, similar to the coal mine fund. The senators estimated that the royalty fees would bring in nearly $100 million annually to help remediate abandoned mines.
In an interview with The Durango Herald, Bennet said the focus of the hard-rock mining reform bill is to level the playing field.
“It just doesn’t seem fair to me that you have to pay royalties for coal, oil and gas but you don’t have to pay royalties for mining,” Bennet said. “What this bill does is create a nominal royalty rate and a reclamation fee so that there’s money available to do the cleanup that needs to be done at these mines. And we have less momentum there, and we’ve got to find some way to get bipartisan support for that bill, but we’ll keep working on it.”
The legislation, along with a similar House bill, is stuck in committee. But earlier this week, the La Plata County commissioners sent a letter to Bennet and other congressional representatives voicing their support for reforms to the 1872 mining law.
Philip Clelland, a spokesman for Bennet, said senators sponsoring the legislation continue to advocate for reforms.
“Senator Bennet and the other bill sponsors are talking to Republicans about a possible path forward and potential modifications to the bill,” Clelland said. “The Gold King Mine spill was an unfortunate reminder of the seriousness of this issue, and we hope it spurs action on this and other bills. Coloradans shouldn’t have to live in fear that contaminants from these abandoned mines are in their water. There isn’t an easy path in Congress, but we’re committed to moving this bill forward.”
[email protected] Edward Graham is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.