Former Rep. Williams, Stakeholders Urge Baucus, Tester to Pass Mining Reform Bill

Former Rep. Williams, Stakeholders Urge Baucus, Tester to Pass Mining Reform Bill

In the face of rising cleanup costs and an increase in mining claims in Montana, public officials, tribal leadership, sportsmen and ranchers today called on Senator Jon Tester and Senator Max Baucus, to reform the 135-year-old law that governs the mining of gold, uranium and other hardrock minerals on federal lands in Montana 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. Later this month, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which Senator Tester is a member, will hold its second hearing on the need to reform the 1872 law.

“Mining reform, which many of us have sought for a decade and a half, is now within grasp,” said former Congressman Pat Williams.  “We all need to urge the good members of Montana's congressional delegation to put their shoulders to the wheel to assure passage of the necessary changes to this antiquated law. 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. 

Mining pollution in Montana has prompted fish consumption advisories, damaged fish and wildlife habitat, polluted drinking water supplies and led ranching families to file complaints of livestock and irrigation water loss.  State regulators estimate that more than 290,000 acres of Montana lakes and 2,000 miles of Montana streams have been impaired by pollution from hardrock and coal mining operations.

The need for reform has also been made more urgent by the dramatic increase in new mining claims in western states, including Montana.  According to Bureau of Land Management data analyzed by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, the total number of hardrock mining claims in Montana is 21 percent higher in mid-2007 than in 2003. Claims totaled 12,779 in July of 2007. In 12 western states combined, an 81 percent increase was seen over than time period.

"Local government has a stake in federal mining law reform," said Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Ed Tinsley. "Our county is full of abandoned mines that are polluting community drinking water supplies, jeopardizing public safety and damaging favorite hunting and fishing areas. We need to modernize the law so that local government has a say in protecting these resources, and the mining industry pays a fair share towards cleanup."

“Sportsmen have a stake in mining reform,” said Stan Frasier, past president and current board member of Montana Wildlife Federation. “Our public lands are the source of our best fishing, hunting and wildlife habitat, and support Montana's recreation industry, the sector that vies for No. 1 in the state. But our fisheries have been hit hard.  I support meaningful mining reform, because those who are making the profits should bear the cost of the cleanup.”

"The 1872 Mining Law has left us with a legacy of poisoned water,” said Julia Doney, President of the Fort Belknap Tribal Council. “Clear-running streams that once supplied clean water for our people to drink and for farming, ranching and wildlife, now bleed acids and toxic metals from the bankrupt gold mine next to our reservation. We cannot afford to wait any longer for a new law that will protect the clean water we depend on here in Montana and across the West."

"Ranchers have a stake in mining law reform," said Kelly Flaherty Settle, ranch owner near Canyon Creek. "We have direct experience with abandoned mines polluting the water resources that our cattle drink. Water is limited, and every drop is precious. The Senate bill needs to include a source of funding to cleanup abandoned mines and provisions to protect agricultural water resources."

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.