WASHINGTON – Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress agree that federal hard-rock mining regulations, which are governed by a 147-year-old law, need updating. But the partisan bills that members of the two parties introduced this month show divergent ideas about how to reform the industry.
Democrats led by Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva and New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall reintroduced companion versions of the Hard Rock Mining Reform Act, which would impose a 12.5% royalty on new mining projects on federal lands and an 8% royalty on existing projects where miners make more than $50,000 per year.
The bill proposes using the royalties to create a reclamation fund to pay for abandoned mine cleanups across the country. The current law – the General Mining Act of 1872 – does not require companies to pay royalties on mining projects on federal lands.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who is a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill and a candidate for president, voiced his support for the bill in a news release.
“The lasting harm of the Gold King spill continues to remind us that we have considerable work ahead to address the thousands of abandoned mines across the country,” he said. “Hard rock mining is part of our heritage in Colorado, but it is long past time to reform our antiquated mining laws.”
The royalties would apply to hard rock minerals, such as copper and iron, but not soft rock minerals, such as coal. The federal government already imposes royalties on coal, oil and natural gas.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, who is a co-sponsor of the Republicans’ mining bill, said in an email that the Democratic legislation is a “fundamental misunderstanding of hard rock mining.”
“Every single Coloradan benefits from the mining of minerals – from the minerals that go into their smartphones and medical equipment to the solar panels and wind turbines we see across the state,” Tipton said. “The (Democratic) proposal would create more barriers for responsible mineral development in the United States and ramp up support for the hard rock industry in high-polluting countries like China.”
The U.S. imports 52% of its nickel, 34% of its copper and 24% of its iron and steel from countries including Canada, Chile and China, according to a 2019 U.S. Geological Survey report. The U.S. is a net exporter of gold.
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt traveled to Washington to ask lawmakers to pass the bill at a House Committee on Natural Resources hearing on May 9. In her testimony, Lachelt recalled the 2015 Gold King Mine spill, which released 3 million gallons of mustard-yellow wastewater into the Animas River.
“We have an opportunity to make sure that there is never another Gold King Mine spill,” Lachelt said at the hearing. “By reforming the 1872 mining law, we not only create a robust reclamation fund to clean up old mines, we also create jobs,” referring to employment opportunities the fund would offer.
The Durango Herald reported last year that there are 23,000 active and inactive mines in Colorado.
On May 7, a day before House Democrats announced their mining legislation, Tipton joined 17 of his Republican colleagues to introduce the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act.
The bill aims to streamline the permitting process for hard rock mines by designating a lead agency – either the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service, depending on the project – to review applications in order to shorten wait times for permits. Applicants can deal with numerous government agencies and wait up to a decade for a mining permit in the U.S., according to a 2014 report by mining consulting firm Behre Dolbear.
Neither bill has any bipartisan support, which they would need to become law since Democrats gained a majority in the House in January.
Tipton, Bennet and Republican Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner have previously worked on Good Samaritan mine cleanup legislation that would have allowed conservation groups to sidestep liabilities in the Clean Water Act to clean up abandoned mines. In 2016 and 2018, Good Samaritan mine cleanup bills failed to become law, but Colorado’s delegation to Congress may try to push another one to help restore thousands of mines in the state.
James Marshall is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.