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Senator Dale Bumpers (D-Arkansas) passed away on January 1, 2016. He served as Governor of Arkansas from 1971-1975 and as Arkansas Senator from 1975-1998. We at Earthworks will miss him greatly because of his tireless work to protect Americans from the excesses of the hardrock mining industry encouraged by the antiquated 1872 Mining Law.

In 1989, Senator Bumpers introduced the first Senate bill to reform the Mining Law. He was a mining reform champion from then until he retired from the Senate in 1999.

We needed his championship because, as ridiculous as it sounds,the 1872 Mining Law forces Americans to give away, for free, publicly owned hardrock minerals like gold, copper, and uranium. As we reported in Golden Patents, Empty Pockets, as of 1994 we had given away $235 billion in publicly owned minerals to the mining industry.  Today that total exceeds $300 billion.

When President Ulysses Grant signed the 1872 Mining Law it required no environmental protections. Because it still contains none, and the federal government didn’t enact any protections through other laws until 1980, more than 500,000 abandoned and inactive mines now litter the United States. In large part because of those mines the Environmental Protection Agency says 40% of the headwaters of western watershed are polluted by mining.

If any of Senator Bumpers’ many mining reform bills had passed, they would have created an abandoned mine reclamation fund to clean up this problem. Countless waterways would have been protected. Last summer’s spill at the Gold King mine that left the Animas River polluted with bright orange acid mine drainage may not have happened.

Even though his comprehensive Mining Law reform bills were defeated, Senator Bumpers, along with then Representative Nick Joe Rahall (D-WV-1) secured a significant fiscal and environmental victory with a moratorium on “patenting” in 1994.

Patenting — also authorized by the 1872 Mining Law — enables mineral claim holders on lands owned by all Americans to buy that land  at the 1872 price of $5/acre! One of the last mines to be patented, Barrick’s Goldstrike Mine in Nevada [photo of Goldstrike] held $10 billion in gold and other minerals; the Interior Department sold over 1,000 acres to Barrick for only $5190. Until the patenting moratorium, the 1872 Mining Law had forced Americans to sell public lands equivalent in area to the state of Connecticut — for the per-acre  price of a hamburger.

Senator Bumpers’ patenting moratorium put an end to this enormous giveaway, and — although it must be renewed every year —  it has proven lasting. Phil Hocker, the founder of Mineral Policy Center, as Earthworks was originally called, said “Dale Bumpers will be missed. He accomplished important forward steps toward 1872 Mining Law reform, with dogged persistence -and homework. The ban on patenting took effect October 1st, 1994.  It was an important advance… not enough, not close to enough, but important progress.”

Senator Bumpers’ mining reform legacy also includes a new generation of leaders in today’s Senate. Senators Tom Udall, Martin Heinrich, Michael Bennet, Ron Wyden, Ed Markey and others are fighting to protect American taxpayers, the West, and the westerners who live there by sponsoring the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015.

Earthworks will proudly continue to uphold Sen. Bumpers’ legacy by fighting for a fair mining law that protects communities and the environment.