Socialism for the rich: Why are we still GIVING AWAY mining rights on public land?

  • Published on March 13th, 2020

Nearly a century and a half ago, as part of Washington’s effort to encourage settlement in the West, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the General Mining Act of 1872. This granted individuals (and corporations) the right to stake exclusive claims to mineral resources like gold, copper, zinc, cinnabar, and “other valuable resources” on public land, which today include uranium and platinum. Since then, it’s estimated that about $300 billion in minerals have been extracted with no royalty paid to the government. And the way federal land managers currently operate, preference is given to mining over all other land uses, including everything from recreation to protection of drinking water supplies.

mountaintop removal coal mine

By Meteor Blades

The price for acquiring federal land under the act until a moratorium imposed in 1994 was $2.50-$5 an acre and $100 of work annually. Not only are no royalties collected, but there was also originally no requirement to clean up the mess left behind when mined-out claims were abandoned. If those messes were confined to the sites themselves, cleanup might not be a big deal. But these old mines often pollute streams and rivers well beyond the boundaries of the claims despite reclamation law. Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, is determined to change that.

Over the years, the Government Accountability Office has issued a number of reports detailing the impacts of hundreds of thousands of such mines. The GAO on Wednesday released yet another one, and it’s a doozy, although hardly a surprise.

The short version: 140,000 abandoned sites have been identified by five government agencies; 67,000 of these may pose physical safety risks, and 22,500 may pose environmental hazards with risks to the health of humans and wildlife; the agencies estimate that there may be as many as 390,000 abandoned hardrock mining sites on federal land that are not included in their databases. Between 2008 and 2017, the report found, the government spent $2.9 billion for reclamation of such mines, with former mine owners kicking in a billion. Federal authorities naturally expect many more billions in tax revenue will have to be spent given the huge backlog of unreclaimed sites.

The GAO report was requested by Udall, who has introduced numerous pieces of legislation over the years to modernize the legislative relic that spawned this situation, including bills he proposed in 2017 and again in 2019. Neither made it out of committee. Given the current make-up of the Senate, there’s also zero chance his latest proposal will clear either. Indeed, Udall failed in his attempt this week to get it attached to the now-stalled bipartisan Senate energy bill as the Hardrock Royalty and Reclamation Fee Amendment. Among other things, this would have imposed a 5%-8% royalty fee and a reclamation fee of 1%-3%. A bill in the House, H.R. 2579, proposed by Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, would mandate a 12.5% royalty—the same as on oil and gas from federal land—and a 7-cent reclamation fee for every ton of dirt displaced.

Said Udall in a release posted on his Senate webpage: “This unbiased report underscores that it is past time to update our antiquated hardrock mining laws. It’s simply outrageous—mining companies have stripped gold, silver and other valuable minerals from our public lands without paying a dime for the privilege for nearly 150 years, and federal taxpayers get stuck footing the bill for billions in cleanup costs. Meanwhile, these mines poison our waterways, our land, and our communities. As Congress considers legislation that would give the mining industry a new benefit in the form of fast-tracked permits, we absolutely must bring federal hardrock mining laws into the twenty-first century. And we have to start by telling these largely foreign mining companies that they need to pay their fair share to deal with the toxic legacy that mining has left across the West and the nation.”

Numerous attempts beside Udall’s have been made previously to reform the mining law. On its 100th anniversary, nearly 50 years ago, environmentalists made the case for change, but industry managed to keep the law intact. In the later 1970s, the government established requirements and parameters for reclamation.

Since 1980, cleanup of old sites has been required under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), known as Superfund. In 1994, as noted above, Congress put a moratorium on allowing claimants to buy staked claims for a pittance. In 2001, the Bureau of Land Management began requiring reclamation bonds from companies before any exploration or mining is allowed. A comprehensive reform of the old mining law passed the House of Representatives by a large margin in 2008 but never got out of committee in the Senate. And there was another attempt in 2014.

So why is this obsolete giveaway law still on the books? Thank industry lobbying. Extracting royalty-free billions in minerals from publicly owned land is a perk worth fighting for fang and claw—as the decades of unsuccessful reform attempts so frustratingly prove.

(Crossposted with DailyKos.)

About the Author

Meteor Blades is a writer and contributing editor at DailyKos. He believes there is something profoundly wrong with our system. - the unchecked accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a very small group of corporate business interests has contributed to the wholesale corruption of our political system. For an understanding about the level of corruption in our country, he encourages you to view these two PBS documentaries: (1). ,The Untouchables; (2) The United States of ALEC.
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