Federal lawmakers push for mining reform

Noel Lyn Smith
The Gold King Mine is pictured Aug. 10 north of Silverton, Colo.

FARMINGTON – A group of Democratic lawmakers is proposing a bill that would reform a century-old mining law.

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.

In addition to Udall, the measure has support from senators Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; and Ed Markey, D-Mass.

Udall, Heinrich and Bennet, along with U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., talked about the bill in a press conference telephone call on Thursday.

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.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.