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Last week, Senators Udall, Bennet, Heinrich, Markey, and Wyden introduced the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 (1872 reform). Pegged as the solution to preventing future Animas River disasters, this legislation will reform the antiquated General Mining Law of 1872 and bring the hardrock mining industry in to the 21st century.

This Land is Your Land. This Land is My Land.

No mining reform is complete without ending patents. Patenting is the process of privatizing public lands to anyone with an extra $5/acre who stakes a claim and proves a valuable mineral deposit. While patenting may have once been a worthy incentive to settle the West back in the 19th century, nowadays, the West has settled major urban centers like Phoenix and Denver. Other minerals like oil and gas belong to a leasing system where operators receive a permit to drill. Under this bill, the mining industry will join a similar system.

Money for Nothing and Gold for Free

If it weren’t enough that the mining industry gets title to public lands for virtually nothing, the valuable minerals underneath come free of charge. Unlike anything else we dig or drill for (oil, gas, coal etc.), the hardrock mining industry pays no royalty to the taxpayer. They get the land for $5/acre and all the people’s mineral wealth for free. Throw in some tax breaks and overall it’s a pretty good deal if you can get it.

This bill would modernize this system by charging a royalty on the people’s gold so the taxpayer receives a fair return for our minerals- just as with other extractive industries. The Secretary of the Interior will assess the fee, at her discretion, between 2% and 5% of the gross income for production of the mineral.

Clean Up Your Own Mess

By now, a number of Congressional hearings and government agencies have documented the causes of the Gold King Mine spill. The core of this problem, however, is that we have approximately 500,000 abandoned hardrock mines in the United States that will require an estimated $50 billion to fix. The only feasible solution is to make polluters pay not taxpayers.

The coal industry figured this out about 40 years ago. And ever since, they have paid a small fee in to a fund for cleaning up abandoned coal mines. A small portion of this fund also goes to fund hardrock mine clean up as well. So, effectively, the coal industry has subsidized the hardrock mining industry’s problem for nearly two generations.

This bill creates a dedicated independent funding stream, similar to coal, that will fund clean up of abandoned hardrock mines.The Secretary of Interior, at her discretion, will set the fee between 0.6% and 2% on the mineral’s production annual value.

Balancing Mining with Other Land Uses

The 1872 Mining Law gives preferential treatment for hardrock mining above all other uses of public lands. This means if any other use of our lands- energy development, recreation, conservation etc. competes with mining, mining wins. Neither the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) nor the Forest Service (FS) have the discretion to deny a mine threatening a community, sacred Native site, or water resources. This bill grants those agencies some discretion.

The Time for Reform is Now

We have not seen a Senate version of 1872 reform since 2009. And yet, each of the bill’s original co-sponsors have long advocated for reforms to this wholly unfair statute. We must pass this bill to ensure disasters like the Animas never happen again.