As Gold King Mine Spill Anniversary Approaches, Bennet, Colleagues Introducing Bill to Prevent Future Hardrock Mine Disasters

1872 mining law reform bill would treat hard rock mining like oil and gas, require a reasonable royalty to pay for abandoned mine cleanup efforts

Washington, D.C. - Today, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, along with Senators Tom Udall (D-NM), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), announced that they will introduce legislation to reform the nation's antiquated hardrock mining laws and prevent another toxic spill like the Gold King Mine disaster of 2015. Their announcement comes on the eve of the second anniversary of the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King Mine spill, in which 3 million gallons of polluted mining wastewater went into the Animas and San Juan rivers, through Southwestern Colorado, Northwestern New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.

"The Gold King spill continues to be a reminder of the threat that abandoned mines pose," said Bennet. "Hard-rock mining is a part of our heritage in Colorado, but it is long past time to reform our antiquated mining laws. This bill would provide the resources necessary to help clean up the thousands of abandoned mines in Colorado, improve water quality, and prevent a future disaster for downstream communities."

"La Plata County is acutely aware of the risks posed by abandoned hardrock mines and the inadequacies of the existing General Mining Law of 1872. Reform of the law is imperative to provide both resources and mechanisms to address the impacts of hardrock mining on public lands. We thank Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and his western state colleagues for taking action to help protect downstream communities, their residents, their economies and their futures with this proposed reform legislation," said Julie Westendorff, Chair of the Board of Commissioners of La Plata County.

"The Gold King Mine spill, August 5, 2015, which released an orange plume of three million gallons of acid mine waste into the Animas River and through our community, provided a timely reminder that a 145-year old law is woefully inadequate and places undo responsibility on the taxpayers to address the impacts of this industry on the environment, our communities and economies. We support Senator Bennet and fellow members of Congress in their continued effort to enact 1872 Mining Law Reform," said Durango City Councilor Dean R. Brookie.

"Reform of the 1872 Mining Law is long overdue, and I wholeheartedly support this bill which will give us important tools for the clean-up of our watersheds in Colorado. While Good Samaritan legislation is needed and would help with some mine clean ups, many more mine sites and watersheds would benefit from the provisions of this bill, especially from the funding this bill provides for clean up by finally placing a royalty on hard rock minerals extracted from public lands. I thank Senator Bennet for his leadership on this issue as this type of bill is what will really clean up our western watersheds," Pete McKay, San Juan County Commissioner.

An estimated half million abandoned hardrock mines are scattered across the West, many leaking toxic chemicals and threatening downstream communities. Yet taxpayers are on the hook to cover the $20-$50 billion it would cost to clean up the mines. The lawmakers' bills offer a common-sense solution to take the burden off taxpayers.

Current 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' bills would update the law and impose a common-sense royalty on hardrock mining companies -- similar to that paid by oil and gas and coal companies for decades -- to help pay for abandoned mine cleanup and prevent future disasters.

Udall, Heinrich, Bennet and Luján, joined by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Edward J. Markey (D-MA), introduced similar House and Senate bills in 2015. They are seeking additional stakeholder input prior to officially filing the bill.

Separately, Udall, Heinrich, Bennet and Luán are pushing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to compensate the Gold King Mine accident victims, who include Navajo farmers and small business owners who were unable to use the contaminated water for drinking, irrigation or recreation weeks after the spill. The lawmakers also are working to ensure the EPA continues to pay for independent water quality monitoring in the Animas and San Juan rivers.

The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2017 would:

  • Require hardrock mining companies to pay an annual rental payment for claimed public land, similar to other public land users.
  • Set a royalty rate for new operations of 2 percent-5 percent based on the gross income of new production on federal land (would not apply to mining operations already in commercial production or those with an approved plan of operations).
  • Create a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund for abandoned mine cleanup. The fund would be infused by an abandoned mine reclamation fee of 0.6 percent-2 percent.
  • Give the Secretary of the Interior the authority to grant royalty relief to mining operations based on economic factors.
  • Require an exploration permit and mining operations permit for noncasual mining operations on federal land, valid for 30 years and as long as commercial production occurs.
  • Permit states, political subdivisions, and Indian Tribes to petition the Secretary of the Interior to have lands withdrawn from mining.
  • Require an expedited review of areas that may be inappropriate for mining, and allow specific areas be reviewed for possible withdrawal.

Since the Gold King Mine spill, Bennet has worked to ensure that the EPA addresses all of the local communities' concerns and prioritizes funding for cleanup of the spill. He's repeatedly met with community officials, and pushed the EPA to implement the Superfund designation in a way that works for the region and move the claims and reimbursement process forward quickly. In Congress, he has introduced The Gold King Mine Spill Recovery Act to ensure the EPA compensates all communities and tribes affected by the spill. He also worked with the local community to set up a water quality monitoring program for the Animas River and worked to secure federal legislation to authorize and fund that program.