Udall hearing examines 1872 mining law; reform pits Reid against Salazar, Obama admin.

<em>(rmi, Flickr)</em>
(rmi, Flickr)

Unlike oil and gas extraction, pulling hard-rock minerals like uranium, gold and copper out of the ground is a royalty-free proposition in the United States, despite the often enormous costs of cleaning up public lands after the fact.

The Environmental Protection Agency in a filing on Monday noted that hard-rock mining has impacted 40 percent of all western watersheds and that nationwide 28 percent of the toxic pollution generated in the United States comes from the mining industry –- the most of any sector. The EPA also concluded mining represents a major taxpayer burden because of cleanup costs.

The EPA filing was presented during a hearing Tuesday of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chaired by Colorado Sen. Mark Udall. Former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, now Secretary of the Interior, testified the Obama administration wants to see the 1872 Mining Law reformed in the current Congress.

Mining reform legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate, and both versions would set up some sort of royalty structure for hard-rock mining on federal lands. The 137-year-old system of filing for relatively inexpensive and easy-to-acquire “patents” would be scrapped, and a fund would be set up to pay for massive cleanup efforts that for decades have been passed off to taxpayers when mining companies go bankrupt.

The Summitville gold mining disaster in Colorado, for instance, has cost taxpayers more than $200 million in cleanup costs. Reform advocates say the law passed in 1872 by the Grant administration was designed to encourage settlement of the West but is now antiquated and dangerous for the descendants of those settlers.

“We’re going back to the future on 1872 mining reform. This legislation is long overdue,” said Denver-based Environment Colorado advocate Matt Garrington. “Colorado is beautiful country, and we need to protect treasures such as Dolores Canyon from the impacts of uranium mining.”

The Dolores River Canyon is a proposed wilderness area in southwest Colorado threatened by nearby uranium mining claims, which increased 239 percent on public lands in Colorado between 2003 and 2007. Some of those claims are encroaching on national treasures like the Grand Canyon, conservationists point out.

“A lot has changed since 1872. The West is settled, and agriculture, tourism, and outdoor recreation are primary economic drivers for mountain towns,” state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, said in a release. “We need sensible mining policy. Colorado has taken steps toward reform. Now, Washington has an opportunity to make sensible decisions about public land management and to protect our water.”

Salazar likely will get a fight from Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who in the past has blocked reform measures because of gold mining interests in his home state.