Mining Reform

A law passed when lands were mined with pick axes, pans and shovels needs to be overhauled in an age of mechanized mining.

The need to reform the 1872 Mining Law -- initially enacted to encourage Westward expansion -- was illustrated last August when the Clinton Administration arranged to buy out a mine site on environmentally sensitive lands two miles from Yellowstone National Park. The deal the Administration worked out is a reminder of how, under the 1872 law, mining is still one of the few "robber baron" industries left in this country.

Under the terms of the Administration's deal, Crown Butte Mines, a subsidiary of Hemlo Gold Mines, a Canadian Company, agreed to surrender its rights to reopen a closed mine near Yellowstone that it estimates is worth $650 million in gold, silver, and copper reserves. In return, the government will give the company federal property worth $65 million. Crown Butte also agreed to place $22.5 million in escrow to cover the cost of cleaning up the site, which has had mining activity on and off since the late 1800s. After the cleanup, the site will remain the property of the U.S. Forest Service and the American public.

Initially, thanks to provisions in the 1872 Mining Law, Crown Butte Mines had applied to purchase the disputed 27 acres of public land -- and any minerals contained therein -- for a total of $135. Additionally, the company would have paid no royalties on the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of minerals it sought to mine. Environmentalists expressed concern that the cyanide-based chemical extraction processes, the use of heavy machinery common in modern mining, and the mining facilities that would be constructed would cause irreparable damage to the environment of America's first and foremost national park.  Without President Clinton's eleventh hour land swap deal, these concerns would have carried no weight in the face of the antiquated mining law.

Enacted by Congress during the same year that Yellowstone became the world's first national park, the 1872 Mining Law was passed when pick axes, pans, and shovels were the tools used in mining, and without consideration of potential environmental threats.  Today, mining is highly mechanized, based on economies of scale, and, as a result, can cause significant environmental damage.  Despite these changes, the 1872 Mining Law still governs mining on our federal lands. Approximately $2-3 billion worth of minerals are extracted from public lands each year -- all subsidized, financially and environmentally, by taxpayers.  According to the Mineral Policy Center, $245 billion worth of minerals have been mined at giveaway prices since the Mining Law was passed 125 years ago.
Since the land swap, environmental groups have continued to advocate for reform of the 1872 Mining Law. Specifically, these groups want Congress to enact a modern mining law which will: 

Although the land swap was an environmental victory, environmentalists know that it was merely a band-aid solution.  Environmental degradation from mining is rampant across America's west; only comprehensive federal legislation can start the long process of remedying the situation. It is unfathomable that legislators would pass up the opportunity to do something positive for the environment and appeal to the taxpayer's pocketbook. Yet if recent history serves as a guide, industry lobbyists will continue to dominate the ears of Congress, and the American people will continue to subsidize mining operations.

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