Congress Renews Efforts To Reform 19th Century Mining Law

July 22, 2009

A concerted effort to update the US mining law that is more than 130 years old has resurfaced once more. The last substantial push occurred about two years ago, but, as have others before, it didn't get far.

Critics of the US General Mining Act of 1872 are hopeful that a new President and Congress may support a drive to dramatically revamp the law, which was crafted at a time when the priority was encouraging mining in a largely unsettled West.

However, a prominent Senate Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid, comes from Nevada, a major mining state, and his concerns for his constituents likely will play a major role in the shape any reform effort takes.

Two Senate bills have been introduced, and hearings were held July 14, 2009, on S 796 (the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2009, introduced by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-NM)), and S 140 (the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Act of 2009, introduced by Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chair of the Appropriations Committee's Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies subcommittee).

If some form of this legislation is passed, it might assess royalty payments for mines on federal lands. Such payments have never been required for hardrock minerals, though they are common for other extracted resources such as oil, gas, and coal.

Approved legislation might also increase or add various fees, many of which are designed to be used for reclamation of mined lands; set improved standards for reclamation; provide better financial assurance that the mining company can successfully complete any land reclamation and treatment of contaminated water it commits to as part of its permit; improve reclamation of abandoned mined lands; limit mining on selected lands deemed too sensitive for mining disruption; provide for more inspections and better monitoring; and address uranium mining on federal lands, including a scientific review of pertinent requirements.

A similar measure  – though not yet a formal companion to a Senate bill  – was introduced in the House Jan. 27, 2009, by Nick Rahall (D-WV), Chair of the Committee on Natural Resources (HR 699, Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2009). It is very similar to a bill he introduced in 2007 that didn't pass. A hearing was held Feb. 26, 2009.

Prospects for passage of any legislation remain just as uncertain as they have for decades, but it may pay to begin tracking this issue closely, since it likely will attract interest in, and could affect, communities in dozens of states.

For much more information on previous efforts to revise the mining law, and a number of sources, see the TipSheet of Nov. 7, 2007.

For data on the value of various metals being mined, and mining trends, see annual USGS reports:

For one media perspective on many of the issues involved, and for leads on a number of potential sources, see:

Meanwhile, EPA announced July 13, 2009, that it is developing a proposed rule, targeted for release by early 2011, that would provide better financial measures assuring that hardrock mining companies can fulfill their commitments for environmental cleanup. The agency action comes in response to a February 2009 federal court ruling that determined, in cases involving bankruptcy of one or more parties associated with a mine property, that taxpayers were being forced to foot the bill instead of the companies linked with the problem.