For Immediate Release: July 27, 1999
I rise to offer an amendment to strike legislative language in the bill that seeks to give away more of our public lands for the benefit of a few and at a tremendous cost to many, including the American taxpayer and the environment.
I want to begin by stressing that I am not attacking the mining industry and that I believe mining is an important industry in the United States. While most of us do not think about it often, mining produces minerals important in every citizen's daily life. Mining is not only important in our individual routines, but is vital to our industrial base and rural economies. We need an active mining industry in our country, and I support responsible mining.
But, we also need a fair deal. At this time, the mining industry is treated exceptionally well by our old laws. Unfortunately, American taxpayers are not. They receive next to nothing from the industry -- and their public lands suffer, too.
A fact that should both amaze and appall the American public is that mining in this country is controlled by a law written in 1872. This law was written just a few short years after the Civil War when Ulysses S. Grant was still President of the United States. The law of 1872 allows mining interests to buy federal lands for between $2.50 and $5.00 per acre. Guess what they are paying now, 130 years later? Between $2.50 and $5.00 per acre. Now that is a bargain. And what does the hardrock mining industry pay in royalties? Nothing. Zero. Zilch. The hardrock mining industry is the only extractive industry that pays absolutely no royalties to the taxpayers for minerals coming from public lands.
In addition, over the course of these 130 years, the mining industry has caused tremendous environmental damage throughout the West. Mining waste dumps are responsible for poisoning streams, lakes, and groundwater with toxic metals such as lead, cadmium and arsenic. Mining in the United States has left a legacy of 12,000 miles of polluted streams and 180,000 acres of polluted lakes. There are 500,000+ abandoned mines around the country – the taxpayer's cleanup bill for these mines is estimated to be $32 - $72 billion.
The 1872 Mining Law made sense when it was written 130 years ago. However, a lot has changed since that time. Today, our nation is very different than it was in 1872. The value of public lands has increased dramatically. We no longer need incentives to get people to move to the West. Our commitment to protecting our environment is now intense, whereas it used to be nonexistent, in part because natural resources seemed unlimited. And mining technology has changed radically so that much more land is needed for each ounce of mineral extracted.
No one can stand up and say we should continue to regulate the mining industry under the 1872 law. Everyone knows we must make changes. The question is how and when. Do we engage in a comprehensive overhaul or do we just fix the section of the 1872 law that most offends the mining industry? Do we try to move forward with the 1872 Mining Law or do we move backwards?
Today there is one provision in the 1872 Mining Law that provides minimal protection for the environment and the taxpayer. When someone stakes a mining claim, the law provides that person can obtain up to, but no more than, five acres of additional non-mineral lands for the purpose of dumping mining wastes. You would think that given the incredible deal that the mining industry is getting on access to public lands, the industry would be more than willing to comply with this provision.
And yet, when the mining industry was faced with having to comply with the one and only environmental provision of the 1872 Mining Law, it went running to its champions in Congress to change that provision. The mining industry says it cannot mine if only given five acres of public land on which to dump its wastes. Indeed, it argues, and Senator Craig's amendment guarantees, the mining industry should get as much public land as it desires for the dumping of its wastes. The contention of the industry, as well as the language in this bill, is that the 5 acre limitation in the 1872 Mining Law is without meaning.
It is wrong. The five-acre provision provides some protection for our public lands and we must retain it. The Senate has already done some work on this issue. Senator Gorton amended the emergency supplemental appropriation bill we recently passed to exclude a mine in Washington state from the 5-acre millsite limitation. Of course, other mining interests wanted the same deal. So, Senator Craig put a rider on the Interior Appropriations bill in full committee that completely voids any limitation on millsites for all current and future mining operations.
Where is the balance, the fairness, in this limited approach? Where is the fix for the public and their lands to this outdated law? Absolutely absent. The sort of "reform" to the 1872 Mining Law that we are witnessing is not taking us forward, but instead is taking us backwards. The environmental provisions in the Mining Law should be strengthened, not eliminated. Taxpayers should be compensated much more by the mining industry, rather than being asked to expand the giveaway of public lands. -more-
Senator Gorton's amendment on the supplemental appropriations bill and Senator Craig's amendment on the Interior bill give the mining industry everything it wants and gives the American public ever larger dumps. Companies that paid next to nothing for the public land they are mining, are still paying absolutely no royalties and dumping more waste rock than ever on our precious public lands. I cannot stand by and let this industry dump waste rock on our public lands without limitation and without true compensation.
We must have comprehensive mining law reform. Until then I will fight this effort to piece meal reform, especially piece meal reform that benefits the one side that already enjoys tremendous advantages under the current system.
In closing, I would like to add several important points worth remembering: 1. The mining industry has been slow to embrace any mining law reform. Now that it has encountered a part of the law it does not like, it is trying to eliminate the one provision which can limit some of the damage caused by mining.
2. The mining law permits mining companies to extract gold, silver, copper and other hardrock minerals without paying a cent in royalties to the taxpayer. Hardrock mining is the only extractive industry to get this benefit. Coal, oil and gas miners all pay a 12.5% royalty for what they take from public lands. Since 1872, taxpayers have given away $240 billion worth of minerals to the hardrock mining industry.
3. By contrast, all western states collect a royalty or production fee from minerals removed from state lands, collecting between 2% and 10% on the gross income from mineral production. On private lands, royalties are similar to those imposed on state lands and are usually set at 2% to 8% of gross income.
4. The 1872 Mining Law is in need of environmental and fiscal reform. Congress should not overturn the millsite decision and expand it to allow more dumping of mine waste on public land.
5. The millsite decision does not halt hardrock mining on public lands. Do not believe the false rhetoric that the Solicitor's opinion will drive the hardrock mining industry out of business, at the expense of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs. This is false.
6. The Department of Interior will not enforce the millsite waste limitation retroactively. For future mine proposals and mine expansions the limitation will apply.
7. Industry asserts that the millsite decision is not consistent with existing law and instead is policy advocacy by the Interior Department. This is incorrect. The 1872 Mining Law clearly limits millsite claims to 5 acres for each lode or placer claim. If the industry is so sure of its legal position it can fight the Solicitor's Opinion in court.
Clearly we need to reform the Mining Law of 1872. It may be that the millsite limitation needs revision. But not here, in this way. We should hold hearings and mark up an authorization bill. We should give the American public time to learn of the issues and provide input. Let us strip this provision and pass an Interior Appropriations bill worthy of the President's signature.