Mining Reformed? 

Federal bill finds support even within the industry

For the first time in 135 years, mining laws in the United States are on the verge of significant change.

The passage of House Resolution 2262 last week was a surprise even for conservation groups, which have been fighting for years for tighter restrictions on mining.

If approved as written, it would mean mining companies would pay royalties to the federal government for the minerals removed and sold, and local governments would have input into the location of future mines. The bill passed 244 to 166, with Idaho Reps. Mike Simpson and Bill Sali, both Republicans, voting against it.

Additionally, mining companies would have to meet stricter environmental standards, and the federal government could stop a proposed mine if the location is found to be unsuitable.

It's not the first time the mining regulations, originally written in 1872, have been re-examined. The rules have been tweaked several times over the last century, but there has never been a large-scale update.

"This comes and goes," said John Freemuth, professor of public policy at Boise State. "It's based on who has political power at the time."

The last time the effort seemed to have momentum was in the early 1990s, but it was derailed. This time though, Freemuth believes there may be the support needed to make at least moderate reforms. But the biggest factor in the bill's fate isn't the mining industry or the conservation movement, it's one senator from Nevada. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is the son of a gold miner and has been a longtime supporter of the mining industry.

Wielding the power of his position, Reid has the ability to kill the bill, but many feel he will soften restrictions in order to create something he can support.

"[Reid] will have a lot to say on what's possible to reform," Freemuth said. "Politically, he may be willing to do something to get some sort of change to happen."

"[Reid will] draft a bill that is acceptable to him," said Jack Lyman, executive vice president of the Idaho Mining Association. "We won't be overjoyed, but we can live with anything Harry Reid will support."

Lyman said the members of the Idaho Mining Association actually support significant reforms to the mining law, even paying a royalty. But the association differs when it comes to how much that royalty should be, how it should be assessed and whether a new mine could be halted after companies make a significant investment.

According to Lyman, $1.5 billion worth of minerals were processed in Idaho in 2005, and the mining industry paid $12 million in taxes, royalties and fees.

As written, mining companies would pay an 8 percent royalty on gross mineral production. The industry wants not only a lower percentage, but the royalty to be assessed on net production, after refining costs have been subtracted.

"Let us take what we mine, get it to a product that we can sell, and then put a royalty on that value," Lyman said, pointing out that royalties on both crude oil and coal, as well as Idaho's licensing tax, are assessed in such a manner.

"It's justice," said Liz Paul, campaign coordinator for Idaho Rivers United. "They should not be able to take those minerals out of the ground without paying the taxpayers when the taxpayers have picked up the cost for so much pollution."

Both sides are pleased with the fact that two-thirds of the money collected through federal royalties would be dedicated to cleaning up abandoned mines.

"[For the first time,] we'll have money coming into the state to clean up historic mines that have created safety dangers and environmental hazards," Lyman said.

But a major point of disagreement between the two sides is the increased power of the government to deny new mining operations. Currently, about half of public lands are open to mining. If a person or company stakes a claim and goes through the permitting and planning process, they are entitled to proceed with the mine.

Under the House bill, the government would not only be able to close more land to mining, but would be able to stop a proposed mine. Local and state governments could also appeal a proposed mine—something not allowed before.

"The [Bureau of Land Management] and the [United States Forest Service] finally have the option to say no to inappropriate mines," said John Robison, public lands director for the Idaho Conservation League.

"It would be devastating to the mining industry in Idaho," Lyman said. "It would be the end of new mines in Idaho. The existing [mines] may be able to continue, but even that may be doubtful."

But others doubt it would mean the end of mining in Idaho. "I don't think it would hurt the mining industry," Freemuth said.

Opponents feel the move would create an even playing field after more than a century of mining companies having more rights than surrounding communities.

"They have had such a sweetheart deal," Paul said. "This is standard business practice, not overly burdensome restrictions."

The House bill also sets out additional environmental regulations, especially concerning clean water. While Lyman calls the regulations redundant, Paul and Robison say they are both needed and overdue.

"Over 100 years of mining has taken a heavy toll on Idaho's rivers," Paul said. "There are serious water contamination problems."

The issue jumped into the headlines last year when the Canadian-owned Atlanta Gold Mine Corp. announced plans for a cyanide leaching gold mine near the headwaters of the Boise River, the source for much of Boise's drinking water. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and the City Council unanimously approved a resolution against the mine, calling it a direct threat to the safety of Treasure Valley residents.

But the threat to water doesn't just come from active mines. Abandoned and inactive mines continue to release chemicals for decades, Robison said. The chemicals are not only from the refining process. Some occure naturally but are only released after exposure to the environment in the mining process.

HR 2262 requires that mining companies not only meet clean water standards while a mine is active, but that water runoff from the mine has to be clean 10 years after closure, Paul said.

Both sides said they will be watching as the bill makes its way through the Senate and both feel there will be some level of reform approved.

"This is an idea whose time came about 100 years ago," Paul said.

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