In the face of a dramatic increases in new mining claims in New Mexico, state and county officials called on Senators Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici, leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to reform the 135-year-old law that governs the mining of gold, uranium and other hardrock minerals on federal lands in New Mexico and other western states.
A comprehensive bipartisan package that would modernize the Civil War era statute was passed by the House of Representatives in November. The Senate will host its first mining reform hearing this month.
“This year, New Mexico will take center stage in the effort to reform the 1872 Mining Law,” said Gregory Greene of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining. “Senators Bingaman and Domenici can play a lead role in protecting the health of New Mexico's communities, lands, water and wildlife by producing a modern framework for mining that protects taxpayers and the environment. We all have a stake in their success. ”
The 1872 mining law, signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, offers special status to those filing claims on public lands – without safeguarding watersheds, wildlife or communities from the messy business of mining. It also allows mining companies to take minerals from public lands without compensating taxpayers, while oil, gas and coal industries have been paying royalties for decades.
New Mexico has had a significant share of mining-related disasters. In 1979, 94 million gallons of radioactive, acidic mine tailings spilled into the Rio Puerco. The release from the site, promoted as a modern and safe treatment facility, is the largest release of liquid radioactive waste in U.S. history. Thirty years later, the impacts of that spill still linger.
The need for reform has also been made more urgent by the dramatic increase in new mining claims in western states, including New Mexico. According to Bureau of Land Management data analyzed by the Environmental Working Group, the total number of hardrock mining claims in New Mexico is 50 percent higher in mid-2007 than in 2003. Claims totaled 11,348 in July of 2007.
“The state of New Mexico has a stake in federal mining law reform,” said Bill Brancard, Director of New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division. “While the state has created significant safeguards for water, we needs federal mining law reform that includes resource protection and a reasonable royalty.
“We've shown that you can have stringent protections for mining yet still have a viable, productive mining industry,” said Brancard.
“Counties have a stake in mining reform,” said Dina Archuleta, Bernalillo County Commissioner. “In 2007, we passed a resolution calling for restored balance on our public lands. We ask Senators Bingaman and Domenici to take this opportunity to create meaningful reform at the federal level.”
“Sportsman have a stake in mining reform,” said Kent Salazar, president of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. “Our public lands are the source of our best fishing, elk hunting and wildlife habitat, and we pay user fees to hunt and fish. It's time the industry also paid its own way, and took on the cost of mine cleanup.”
On January 24, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hear testimony about the need for mining law reform and is expected to produce a bill by late February. The hearing follows passage late last year of H.R. 2262, which provided fundamental reform measures.