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Mining Gold and Copper On Public Lands Is Royalty-Free. House Democrats Want To Change That.

Lime is used to treat wastewater from the Gold King Mine outside Silverton, Colorado. Workers with the EPA and an environmental contractor triggered a spill of mine waste into the Animas River in August 2015.
Lime is used to treat wastewater from the Gold King Mine outside Silverton, Colorado. Workers with the EPA and an environmental contractor triggered a spill of mine waste into the Animas River in August 2015.

The law that governs today’s hardrock mines on public lands in the West is nearly 150 years old. New legislation this week from House Democrats would enact significant reforms. 

Hardrock mining refers to things like gold, copper and uranium, and Ulysses S. Grant was the last president to pass a law governing their extraction on public lands. The 1872 law exempts hardrock mining companies from paying royalties for the minerals they extract.

The Democratically controlled house says it's time for a revamp. Lauren Pagel with the environmental nonprofit, Earthworks, is on board.

“Reforming the mining law is about protecting drinking water,” Pagel said, “and holding mining companies responsible for the pollution that they create on our public lands in the West.”

Proposed legislation from Congressman Raul Grijalva, the chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, would establish royalties on new mining operations and require companies to consult with tribes about interference with sacred sites. It would also create a fund to reclaim and restore abandoned mines.

The EPA has estimated that 40 percent of western watersheds have been polluted by abandoned mines.

But mining groups believe the proposed reforms will de-incentivize the industry. Stan Dempsey is with the industry group the Colorado Mining Association. He’d rather see Congress introduce a voluntary environmental cleanup program.

“You can build partnerships between nonprofits and mining companies to go out and clean up those abandoned mines and those mines that are continuing to impact the environment,” said Dempsey. “That’s the answer. Not new taxes.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2021 KRCC. To see more, visit KRCC.

Ali Budner is KRCC's reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, a journalism collaborative that unites six stations across the Mountain West, including stations in Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana to better serve the people of the region. The project focuses its reporting on topic areas including issues of land and water, growth, politics, and Western culture and heritage.
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