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Rep. Markey Offers Bill to Reform Nation’s 139-Year-Old Mining Law

WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 – Prices for precious metals are soaring, but the hardrock mining industry remains exempt from paying royalties for the riches it extracts from U.S. public lands, and from paying to cleanup the pollution from abandoned mines. Legislation to make the mining industry pay its share and clean up its messes was welcomed today by Western communities who live daily with the impacts of mining.

“With record-high metals prices and skyrocketing industry profits, it’s time for mining companies to pay their fair share,” said Lauren Pagel, policy director for Earthworks. “Reform of America’s antiquated mining laws to protect water resources, fund cleanup of abandoned mines, put special places off-limits to mining and make the industry pay taxpayers what we are owed is long overdue.”

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced a large package of bills today to make sure the oil, gas and mining industries pay their fare share. A key component of this comprehensive legislation would overhaul the General Mining Law of 1872, which allows mining of gold, copper, uranium and other metals virtually anywhere on Western public lands, with few environmental safeguards and no return to the taxpayers. Hardrock mining is the only industry that extracts resources from public lands that does not pay federal royalties.

With precious metals prices higher than they have been in decades, big mining companies are enjoying astounding profits. Newmont Mining of Denver – the largest producer in the United States and operator of three mines that are among the nation’s ten biggest sources of toxic pollution – saw profits double from 2008 to 2010, to $1.8 billion last year. At Barrick Gold Co. of Toronto – the world’s largest gold producer, profits for the second quarter of 2011 were $1.2 billion, up 35 percent over 2010.

While mining companies are raking in profits they continue to be the nation’s largest source of toxic pollution – releasing 1.7 billion pounds of toxic materials in 2009, the most recent data available from the EPA. The 1872 Mining Law is inadequate to regulate modern mining, which uses chemicals such as cyanide to leach metals from rock, leaving the landscape scarred with toxic tailings piles and pit lakes. According to the EPA, hardrock mining has contaminated the headwaters of 40 percent of watershed in the West, and cleaning up the nation’s hundreds of thousands of abandoned hardrock mines will cost over $50 billion.

“Water is scarce in Nevada and other Western states, but the outdated mining law lets mining companies get away with polluting our most valuable resource,” said John Hadder of Great Basin Resource Watch. He cited Newmont’s Lone Tree Mine and Mule Canyon Mine, which have created pit lakes in Nevada contaminated with acidic water, that will require long-term treatment.

In Montana, the proposed Rock Creek mine, a copper-silver mine that would tunnel underneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, is expected to generate water pollution in perpetuity.  Said Jim Costello of the Rock Creek Alliance, a group of businesses and concerned citizens near the proposed mine: ““It’s completely irresponsible for this industry to operate under a 139-year-old law that leaves communities to deal with lasting pollution.”

Throughout the West, Native communities have long borne the brunt of the destructive effects of uranium mining. In the last decade, uranium prices have risen from $10 a pound to around $50 a day, leading to renewed interest from mining companies. Several companies have proposed new uranium mining projects that threaten Mt. Taylor, N.M., a mountain that is sacred to a number of New Mexico and Arizona tribes. Because the 1872 Mining Law gives mining the highest priority for use of public lands, mines are permitted regardless of conflicts with other uses and values.

“There are some places, sacred places such as Mt. Taylor, that just shouldn’t be mined,” said Nadine Padilla, who is Navajo and an organizer with the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment in Albuquerque, N.M. “We need a modern mining law that can balance mining with other uses of public land and protect us from the potentially deadly impacts of uranium mining.”

These legislative changes will bring mining on public lands into the 21st century by:

  • Setting strong standards to protect precious water resources from toxic mine waste;
  • Imposing a federal royalty to compensate U.S. taxpayers for extracting valuable minerals from public lands; and
  • Protecting special places by allowing officials to deny mines that threaten clean water, important wildlife and fisheries, recreation and other values.
  • Require hardrock mining companies to pay reclamation fees into a fund to cleanup abandoned mines, similar to the fees already required of coal mining companies.

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