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May 10th, yesterday, was the 144th birthday of the General Mining Law of 1872.

Some things, like the U.S. Constitution, embody timeless principles. The 1872 Mining Law is not one of those things.

Instead it is a hurtful and embarrassing reminder of the worst of 19th century thinking. Hurtful because its consequences are harming communities and the environment to this day. Embarrassing because it is still the law of the land for hardrock mining (mostly metals like gold, copper, uranium, etc).

Signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant before Custer’s Last Stand, the 1872 Mining Law was intended to do two things:

  1. Encourage the extraction of minerals by giving them away, and
  2. Fulfill America’s “Manifest Destiny” — i.e. extirpate Native Americans – by “selling” mineral bearing lands at rock bottom prices to “settle” nonarable public lands.

If you wonder if the federal government can do anything it intends to do (and you discount the Moon landing, the interstate highway system, Social Security, etc), wonder no more. The 1872 Mining Law gloriously achieved its intended goals by:

  • Giving away more than $300 billion in publicly owned gold, copper and other metals, and
  • Selling, for no more than $5 per acre, mineral-bearing publicly owned lands equal in area to the state of Connecticut.

Although its financial impacts are egregious, its environmental damage is more egregious still. 19th century Americans didn’t think of the environment as something to be protected so much as something to be “tamed” and “used”. Consequently, the Mining Law contains no environmental provisions. And until 1980 there was no federal regulation of the environmental impacts of hardrock mining.

The consequences of giving the mining industry free rein for 108 years (and arguably up to present day)?

Known problem mines like Gold King still cause problems today because – unlike the law governing coal mining — the 1872 Mining Law doesn’t charge the hardrock mining industry a reclamation fee to clean them up. So even though EPA, the state of Colorado, and the nearby community knew that Gold King was a huge problem threatening the main economic engine of the region (the Animas River), nothing was done until the problem was urgently critical. Why? Because there wasn’t money to do it. And when you’re in crisis mode, mistakes are more likely to happen.

We know how to fix the 1872 Mining Law. Senators Udall, Bennet, Heinrich and Wyden have introduced a bill that would charge a fair royalty for public minerals, require industry to pay a reclamation fee just like the coal mining industry does. That way 1872 legacy mines like Gold King could be much more easily cleaned up.

1872 Mining Law reform would be a heck of a birthday present.