Colorado, New Mexico Lawmakers Lead Introduction of Bill to Reform Hardrock Mining Law

Bill Reforms 1872 Mining Law to Help Prevent Future Disasters like Gold King Mine Blowout

Washington, DC - U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) along with Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced a bill to reform the nation's antiquated hardrock mining laws. The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 will ensure mining companies pay royalties for the privilege of extracting mineral resources from public lands.

The bill helps ensure that taxpayers aren't on the hook for cleaning up abandoned mines, many of which are continuously leaking toxic chemicals into rivers and streams and have the potential for catastrophic disasters like the recent Gold King Mine blowout. The Gold King Mine accident spilled 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers, and communities in New Mexico and Colorado are still struggling to recover from the impact to businesses, farms, and local governments.

Current mining law dates back to 1872 and allows companies to take gold, silver, copper, uranium and other minerals from public land without paying any royalties. The lawmakers' bill would impose a commonsense royalty - similar to that paid by oil and gas and coal companies for decades - to help pay for abandoned mine cleanup and prevent future disasters. There are up to 500,000 abandoned mines across the West, and cleanup is estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars.

In Colorado alone, there are an estimated 7,100 abandoned mines, including 200 that are leaking thousands of gallons of acid mine drainage per minute, which is equal to at least one Gold King disaster every two days. More than 1,600 miles of the San Juan, Big Thompson, Rio Grande, Mancos, and Arkansas River drainages are affected by untreated mines.

"Three months ago, the Gold King Mine spill provided a sudden and devastating reminder of the dangers that abandoned mines pose in Colorado and across the West," Bennet said. "Mining has been intrinsically linked to our history, economy, development and culture, but it's also left scars across Colorado and other states. More than 200 mines in Colorado are leaking acid mine drainage that is polluting headwaters and affecting water quality for communities downstream. Our bill will help clean up these mines and prevent the possibility of future tragedies like the Gold King Mine."

"Hardrock mining companies have enjoyed a sweetheart deal for nearly 150 years, leaving taxpayers on the hook to clean up hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines leaking toxins and threatening communities across the West," said Udall, who has pushed for mining reform since he was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998 and passed a unanimous amendment to the Fiscal Year 2013 budget resolution calling on Congress to enact a royalty for mining on public lands. "The Gold King Mine blowout proves that the status quo just isn't working, and New Mexico and Navajo Nation communities are suffering the consequences. Gold and silver on public lands are a natural resource, just like oil and gas. Taxpayers deserve their fair share of the profit - and communities across the West need that money to clean up abandoned mines."

"Disastrous spills like the Gold King Mine blowout are easy to see. But the unnoticed toxins leaking out of thousands of abandoned gold, silver, copper, and uranium mines are doing enormous damage to our watersheds every day," said Heinrich, who recently toured uranium legacy sites in the Navajo Nation. "We must come together and pass commonsense reforms to our outdated and ineffective federal policy on abandoned mines and hardrock mining."

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M) is a cosponsor of H.R. 963, a similar bill that has been introduced in the House of Representatives. Bennet, Udall, Heinrich, Luján, and members of the Colorado delegation also joined together to introduce the Gold King Mine Spill Recovery Act in the House and Senate to ensure the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compensates those who were impacted by the accident.

The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 will:

  • Set a 2 to 5 percent royalty rate for new mining operations, based on gross income on production.
  • Use royalty revenue and a separate fee of 0.6 to 2 percent to pay for abandoned mine cleanup.
  • Allow states and tribes to receive funding for hardrock reclamation programs, and establish a grant program for other organizations that want to carry out restoration projects.
  • Require permits for non-casual exploration and mining on federal land, and outline requirements for a permit like avoiding acid mine drainage.
  • Require annual rental payments for claimed public land, thereby permanently eliminating patenting and characterizing mine operators as other public land users. 
  • Give the Secretary of the Interior the authority to grant royalty relief if economic factors require it.
  • Permit states and tribes to petition the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw lands from mining, and require an expedited review of certain lands to determine whether they are appropriate for future mining.

A summary of the legislation can be found HERE.

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