10/26/2007 - A relic from another age, and largely unchanged since President Ulysses S. Grant gave his blessing, the General Mining Law of 1872 is one of the oldest and most destructive statutes on the books. Originally enacted to encourage economic development in the West, the law gives precedence above all other land uses to mining for hard-rock minerals like gold, uranium and copper. It requires no royalties from companies that mine on public lands and contains no environmental safeguards. It has left a sad legacy of abandoned mines, poisoned streams and damaged landscapes throughout the West.
Now, at last, there is real hope for reform. Representative Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat who has been trying to modernize this law for two decades, has persuaded the Natural Resources Committee to approve a major rewrite.
Among other things, his bill would impose royalties of 4 percent of net revenues on existing mines and 8 percent on new mines — bringing mining nearly into line with the royalties paid by the oil, gas and coal industries for resources extracted from public lands. These mining royalties would be used to clean up an estimated 500,000 abandoned mines that continue to leak cyanide, lead, mercury and other toxic wastes. Even more important, the bill would require the federal government to balance mining interests against other uses of the public lands, including recreation, preserving wildlife habitat and ensuring the integrity of the water supply. For the first time, land managers, including the secretary of the interior, could say no to a mine.
View full editorial -- At Last, an Overhaul for a Bad Law -- on The New York Times's Web site.