New Legislation Would Protect Taxpayers, Prevent Nation’s Largest Toxic Polluter from Destroying Rivers
Bill would prevent bad actors, like those behind Rock Creek Mine proposal underneath Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, from sticking taxpayers with billions of dollars in cleanup costs
Director of Watershed Programs
5/16/2002 — Washington, D.C. — 130 years after the passage of the 1872 Mining Law, Reps. Nick Rahall (D-WV), Christopher Shays (R-CT), Jay Inslee (D-WA) and others today introduced new legislation to provide much needed environmental and fiscal oversight for the hardrock mining industry, the nation’s largest toxic polluter.
The bipartisan bill would reform the current law of the land, the General Mining Law of 1872: an antiquated statute signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant; a statute that contains no environmental protection provisions; a statute that practically requires the approval of mine proposals; a statute that has left the headwaters of 40% of western waterways polluted by mining. The 1872 Mining Law also allows a mining company to purchase mineral bearing public lands for $5/acre and, even if they don’t buy the land, mine the minerals without payment to the American taxpayers.
The legislation, authored by Rep. Rahall, ranking member of the House Resources Committee, would bring hardrock (gold, silver, copper, etc.) mining law into the 21st century. It would protect precious water resources from toxic mine waste with new environmental standards. It would protect taxpayers from mining industry ripoffs by requiring the industry to pay a royalty for the publicly owned minerals it extracts. It would prevent mining from endangering Wilderness Areas and other special places by requiring land managers to weigh mine proposals against other potential land uses (e.g. tourism) when making permitting decisions.
“For 130 years, the 1872 Mining Law has promised Americans golden dreams. Instead it has delivered thousands of miles of poisoned streams,” said Lexi Shultz, legislative director of Mineral Policy Center. She continued, “the mining industry has practiced environmental destruction while preaching responsibility. With the introduction of this bill, it’s time for industry to put up or shut up.”
The lack of a royalty in the 1872 Mining Law, unlike laws governing other extractive industries (e.g. coal), and the lack of a bad actor provision, also unlike other extractive industries, has resulted in enormous taxpayer giveaways and liabilities. Under the mining law, the American public has given away over $245 billion in mineral rich lands. Under the mining law, the mining industry has left taxpayers with a $32-72 billion cleanup bill for hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines that litter the country.
“The 130 year-old mining law is a legislative dinosaur that should have been made extinct long ago,” said Jill Lancelot, Legislative Director at Taxpayers for Common Sense. “This outdated law’s sole purpose is to preserve a multibillion dollar entitlement program for multinational mining companies at the expense of taxpayers and future generations.”
Featured at the Capitol Hill news conference unveiling the legislation were several citizens from Sandpoint, Idaho who are battling a proposed hardrock mine in nearby northwest Montana. Environmental and conservation organizations say the proposed Rock Creek Mine is a classic example of why the new mining reform bill is needed.
“The 1872 mining law was written for Yosemite Sam. In the age of destructive industrial mining, it’s high time for an overhaul,” said Marty Hayden, Legislative Director, Earthjustice.
“Reform of the 1872 Mining Law is long overdue”, said Dave Alberswerth, BLM Program Director for the Wilderness Society.
The mine would be constructed adjacent to and directly below the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area, one of the first areas protected under the Wilderness Act of 1964. It would threaten one of the last remaining grizzly bear populations in the Lower 48 states, negatively impact populations of threatened native bull trout and pollute rivers, lakes, and drinking water supplies including the famed Clark Fork River and Lake Pend Oreille.
“Lake Pend Oreille is the economic lifeblood of northern Idaho,” said Tom Suttlemeier, Bonner County (ID) Commissioner. “Why should our community risk its livelihood for a mining venture that will pollute its watershed forever?” he continued.
The mine is proposed by Sterling Mining Company, a company whose principals have a long history of being associated with mines that have resulted in horrific environmental pollution – cyanide in drinking water, toxic heavy metals in rivers and streams – and bankruptcy filings that could eventually cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Insanity has been defined as repeating the same mistake over and over and expecting a different result,” said Mary Mitchell, Director of the Rock Creek Alliance. “The people behind Sterling Mining Co. have repeatedly stuck taxpayers with enormous economic and environmental liabilities. It’s insane to expect things will turn out different this time” she continued.
In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) withdrew its clearance of the mine because of problems in the agency’s biological opinion of the mine’s potential impacts on grizzly bears and bull trout. In response, the U.S. Forest Service also temporarily withdrew their approval of the mine until the USFWS resubmits its biological opinion. However, it is expected that within the year, both agencies will again permit the mine.
“Mining is a legitimate use of public lands, said Chris Wood of Trout Unlimited. He continued, “but it is ludicrous to think that absent the presence of the 1872 mining law, the Forest Service would permit a massive mine directly below a wilderness area, within endangered species habitat, in a way that will almost certainly degrade regional water quality. The law must be changed.”
“It’s time to protect public health by keeping toxic mine waste out of our waterways” said Pierre Sadik, U.S. PIRG Staff Attorney. “It’s time to protect taxpayers from this 130 year old handout to the mining industry- because Americans are paying with our tax dollars and our health.”
DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE * EARTHJUSTICE * FRIENDS OF THE EARTH * MINERAL POLICY CENTER * NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL * ROCK CREEK ALLIANCE * SIERRA CLUB * TAXPAYERS FOR COMMON SENSE * TROUT UNLIMITED * U.S. PIRG * THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
For more information: Alan Septoff, MPC, 202-887-1872 x. 205