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Released today, the FY 2012 Obama administration budget endeavors to end the taxpayer boondoggle known as federal hardrock mining policy. On behalf of Earthworks and all of the communities we work with in hardrock mining country, I d like to thank the President Obama for taking on this industry that has taken advantage of the antiquated 1872 Mining Law for far too long. The 1872 Mining Law, which lacks both royalties and protections for communities and precious western water resources, has left this country with at least $50 billion dollars in unreclaimed mine sites with no industry contribution to help deal with the problem.

The Obama administration proposes two things that would change the way that mining operates on public lands. Both of these changes would move us a step closer to cleaning up the mess that has been created by the current mining law.

First, the administration proposes a reclamation fee on the production of hardrock minerals based on the volume of material mined. This money would then be distributed through a competitive grant program to states where remediation is needed. This $200 million a year would go a long way in addressing the serious safety and water quality issues at many abandoned mine sites throughout the West.

The Obama administration also proposes forsaking the current claim and patent system presently employed by the 1872 Mining Law in favor of a leasing system. Currently, oil and gas production operates on federal lands under a leasing system, which allows the federal government to charge a royalty on operations, and gives the government more discretion over where extraction can occur and not occur via lease sales.

Earthworks has advocated for a leasing system for uranium mining in the past, in addition to meaningful reform of the 1872 Mining Law. If the choice is between an antiquated mining law that allows taxpayers to be fleeced and causes communities to suffer and a leasing system that compensates taxpayers and gives the Interior Department more say over where mining can occur, I m voting for the latter.

As someone that has been working on these issues for almost 10 years, this shift in policy for the Obama administration is a far better Valentine’s Day gift than roses or chocolates.