Saturday, January 26, 2008

Between hardrock law and a hard place

I don’t pretend to understand the 1872 hardrock mining law. I do know that it gives mining priority over almost all other endeavors, including living a life free from mine tailings and arsenic and other environmental toxins. I also know that the law dates to 1872. This was seven years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, four years before the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the Black Hills gold rush, and 136 years before much-needed overhauls to this ancient law (finally) are actively under consideration in Congress.

Here are excerpts (including response of our own Sen. John Barrasso in boldface below) from the Jan. 25 article about the situation in the Casper Star-Tribune:

Senators indicated Thursday that they will pass a less-sweeping reform of 1872 hardrock mining law than the House did late last year, imposing royalties on new mines but perhaps not on existing ones.

At a hearing on the issue, senators generally agreed to put in place a royalty on future mines, to create a fund to clean up abandoned hardrock mines and to replace the outmoded patenting system with a more modern practice. But they expressed more reluctance than their House counterparts to impose a royalty on mines already operating.

The House-passed bill would charge an 8 percent royalty on the gross revenue from new mineral production and a 4 percent royalty on existing operations. That includes gold, silver, copper, uranium and more. The royalty would be used for cleanup of abandoned mines.

Under the 1872 law, federal land can be sold for $2.50 or $5 an acre. Congress for more than a decade has annually approved a moratorium on such sales, and the House bill would permanently end them.Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, objected to some of the increased environmental regulations in the House bill. He said that because other national environmental laws already apply, the new rules are "solutions in search of a problem."

But some Democrats and environmental groups want to keep a House-passed provision that gives the Interior secretary the power to veto a mining operation if it would cause undue degradation of the environment.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who also sits on the panel, said he was "troubled" by some of the provisions that came out of the House. He objected to giving future administrations explicit veto authority over mining operations, saying it would add too much uncertainty for investment in mining.

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