New Bill to End 147 Years of Public Giveaways to Mining Industry

Rep. Grijalva & Sen. Udall introduce legislation to reform the 1872 Mining Law

Washington, D.C. – House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ-3) today introduced H.R. 2579, the Hardrock Leasing and Reclamation Act of 2019. The legislation would replace the 1872 General Mining Law, which still governs mining for gold, copper, uranium and other hardrock minerals on publicly owned lands managed by the federal government. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced a similar reform bill in the upper chamber.

“The outdated 1872 Mining Law allows foreign companies to use and abuse American public lands for free,” said Lauren Pagel, Earthworks’ Policy Director. “Chair Grijalva’s bill would end this public wealth giveaway, hold polluters accountable for their messes, and protect our families and environment from toxic mine pollution.”

Unlike other extractive industries, under the 1872 law, mining companies pay no royalties. Whoever stakes a claim and discovers valuable minerals on public lands claims those riches — more than $300 billion and counting since 1872 — without giving taxpayers a dime for them.

“Families across the country live with pollution from irresponsible mining, and taxpayers—not polluters—too often pay for a cleanup,” said Gwen Lachelt, La Plata, Colorado County Commissioner. “We need a mining law that will protect drinking water and hold mining companies responsible for their pollution.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 40% of the headwaters of western U.S. watersheds have been polluted by mining. EPA also reports the mining industry is the nation’s largest toxic polluter. The Associated Press recently reported that every day hard-rock mines collectively produce around 50 million gallons of contaminated waters, threatening water supplies of downstream communities.

“Because of this outdated law, our homeland, the resting place of our ancestors, may soon be transformed into a mine pit,” said Austin Nunez, Chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s San Xavier District, near Tucson, AZ. “We must have the option to protect our special and sacred lands.”

The 1872 law also does not charge a fee for abandoned mine cleanup, the cost of which often falls to taxpayers. The EPA estimates the backlog of cleanup costs for these mines at $20-$54 billion — vastly more than the entire annual Superfund budget.

The 1872 law treats mining as the highest and best use of public land. If a mining company discovers valuable minerals, federal land managers believe the law gives them  no choice but to permit mining, no matter if the land is better used for recreation, conservation, renewable energy, or even fossil fuel extraction.

Representative Grijalva’s bill would update the mining law by addressing those issues and:

  • Allow land managers to balance other public land uses such as recreation, hunting, fishing, and wildlife habitat conservation with hardrock mining.
  • Prohibit mines that would pollute water in perpetuity.
  • Provide a fair return to the U.S. Treasury on minerals taken from public lands.
  • Start a “polluters pay” dedicated fund to clean up the hundreds of thousands of abandoned hardrock mines that litter our public lands.
  • Protect National Monuments, National Parks, Wilderness Study Areas, Roadless Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers and other natural heritage sites from irresponsible mining.

We all deserve access to safe and clean drinking water,” said Percy Anderson of the Navajo Nation. “Environmental damage from mining leaks and spills have threatened our health over the last 60 years. For the sake of our future generations and existence, we must ensure the problem doesn’t get any worse.” 

The need for reform grows more pressing with each passing year.  Some of the most abundant deposits remain harder-to-reach and more wasteful, posing a greater risk to local communities and the water they depend upon.

Without mining law reform, foreign mining companies come in, dig riches out of the ground, and leave taxpayers the mess,” said Carolyn Shafer of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance. “Mining companies need to be held responsible for their pollution to protect drinking water and save taxpayer dollars.”


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