November 1, 2007

House Close to Dismantling 1872 Statute on Mining

The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 — The House is expected Thursday to take a major step toward dismantling the last significant law remaining from efforts to settle the American Wild West, an 1872 mining statute that has allowed vast treasures of gold and other minerals to be carted off federal lands without any royalties paid to the government.

For 135 years, the General Mining Law has permitted prospectors to stake private claims to federal lands, although miners now tend to be corporate conglomerates, not frontiersmen with pickaxes. Environmentalists say the law has also left Western states deeply scarred by abandoned toxic mines.

A House bill, the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act, would permanently bar the sale of federal lands to miners and would require them for the first time to pay royalties of up to 8 percent of gross income from mining, which would go to a fund to clean up abandoned mines. It would also establish new permitting and environmental rules.

Supporters say such changes are long overdue. “This is the last that I know of those frontier-era legislation to remain on the books,” said Representative Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, who for more than 20 years has been working to overturn the 1872 law.

“The Homestead Act has long been repealed,” Mr. Rahall said. “Laws governing carrying your six-gun into saloons, or allowing a posse to hang horse thieves, as far as I know, most of those are gone. And the West pretty much has been opened up these days and is settled.” He added: “The Mining Law of 1872 is the Jurassic Park of all federal laws. It requires an extreme makeover.”

But in the Senate, the push to update the antiquated mining law will require delicate maneuvering by the majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, who is the son of a gold miner and represents the state with the largest gold production, and by other Democrats mindful of the crucial role that Western states will play in next year’s elections.

Mr. Reid has said that he wants to update the law but opposes requiring royalties from existing mining ventures. “He is supportive of mining reform, and this is definitely a step in the right direction,” said Jon Summers, a spokesman for Mr. Reid. “But he doesn’t support this bill in its current form because it imposes royalties on existing operations.”

Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, held a hearing on the mining law in September and called for change, saying he blamed the outdated 1872 law for criticisms of the mining industry on both fiscal and environmental grounds.

Bill Wicker, a committee spokesman, said Mr. Bingaman and Senator Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, the committee’s ranking Republican, planned to introduce a mining bill next year.

In prepared statements, both said they were looking forward to the House’s passing of its bill so the Senate could work on an issue that Mr. Bingaman described as “of great importance to New Mexico and the West.”

But other lawmakers have been less enthusiastic. Senator Larry E. Craig, Republican of Idaho, an ally of the mining industry, raised numerous questions about the House bill at a hearing this year. He said mining companies working on federal lands should pay royalties but cautioned against demanding too much.

“The royalty must be carefully set and be reasonable to avoid choking out our domestic industry,” Mr. Craig said. “An 8 percent net smelter return royalty doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t an industry to apply it to.”

The main industry group, the National Mining Association, which opposes the House bill, sounded a similar alarm on Wednesday. “The 8 percent royalty in the House bill would be the world’s highest royalty on minerals,” said Carol L. Raulston, a spokeswoman, “and the United States is already a high-cost production country, because we pay very high wages and we already have a very extensive regulatory system.”

Ms. Raulston also said that many permitting requirements in the bill were onerous, even more cumbersome than existing requirements that are not set in law but that are part of regulations enforced by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Environmental and other advocacy groups, by contrast, have long called for doing away with the 1872 law. According to various estimates, there are about 500,000 abandoned mines in the Western states that would require environmental remediation costing some $30 billion to $70 billion.

Lauren Pagel, policy director for Earthworks, a group based in Washington, said that while the 1872 law gave state and federal regulators little ability to block mining ventures, the House bill would balance the needs of the mining industry against other land uses, including outdoor recreation, a growing priority in the West.

“Recreation, hunting, fishing are all things that are of very high value in the West,” Ms. Pagel said. “There needs to be a balance between mining, which is very important, with other uses of public land.”

Ms. Pagel said there were also grave concerns about water pollution caused by mining, given the scarcity of water in the region.

The interests of Western battleground states are most likely to be of major interest to the presidential candidates next year, particularly Democrats, who are holding their national convention in Denver.

Mr. Rahall, who is sponsoring the House bill, said that the royalties would provide roughly $310 million for environmental cleanup over 10 years and that new user fees to be paid by mining companies would reduce government spending by $380 million over the same period, while speeding up permitting and other administrative processes.

“What we are doing, hopefully,” Mr. Rahall said, “will be making common-sense reforms.”