By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK â€” Legislation which would reform the 1892 Mining Act passed received overwhelming support by the House of Representative Thursday â€” a move hailed by U.S. Rep. Tom Udall as a way to â€œbring some much needed balance to the use of our public lands.â€
U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici assailed the House version of the bill, saying it â€œwould result in irreparable harm to Americaâ€™s mining industry,â€ while U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman took a middle-of-the-road stance, saying he was â€œpleased that there is renewed interest on the part of many in the industry and in the environmental community in trying to update this law.â€
The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act would reform the General Mining Act of 1872, written to encourage westward expansion and to generate the nationâ€™s supply of minerals. The legislation passed the House by a vote of 244-166. Major hardrock minerals developed in the West include copper, silver, gold, lead, zinc, molybdenum, and uranium.
â€œBack in 1872, a charge of $5 an acre to mine hardrock minerals in remote areas of the undeveloped west was probably a pretty fair price. The fact that the price is still the same today is simply ludicrous,â€ Udall said. â€œAs a result, private companies, both domestic and foreign, have been able to profit handsomely by mining on public lands without the need to pay the American people any royalties or to even cleanup the messes they leave behind.
â€œBy some estimates, the antiquated 1872 Mining Act has allowed over $245 billion dollars worth of minerals to be extracted from more than 3.4 million acres of public lands without returning to the American people, the owners of those lands, a single cent in royalties. Today, we took a necessary step toward bringing this policy into the modern era,â€ Udall said.
H.R. 2262, introduced by Rep. Nick Rahall, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, requires mining companies to pay royalties to the government for the minerals they mine from public lands and to properly reclaim lands damaged by mining.
It also allows for the prohibition of mining on environmentally sensitive lands and creates a fund to begin the cleanup of nearly a half million abandoned mine sites.
With more than 375,000 mining claims spread throughout the rapidly developing West, Udall said, â€œsome of our last pieces of unspoiled lands are threatened. According to the New York Times, many of those 375,000 claims are within 5 miles of 11 major national parks, including Death Valley and the Grand Canyon.â€
More than 89,000 claims were staked in 2006 â€” 2,000 alone in New Mexico â€” largely due to renewed interest in nuclear energy and an accompanying increase in the price of uranium.
â€œMany New Mexicans, most particularly members of the Navajo Nation, have already suffered devastating injuries from uranium mining in the past. H.R. 2262 will bring some much needed balance to the use of our public lands and, in so doing, help protect the health of our citizens,â€ Udall said.
There is broad support for changes to the 135-year-old law signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, according to Matt LeTourneau of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee.
The reform act of 2007 would put in place new royalty and environmental requirements and would give local communities and Indian tribes an increased role in federal land management decisions.
Laura Watchempino of the Haaku Water Office at the Pueblo of Acoma said Thursday that if the reform act gets through the House and Senate and past a presidential veto, â€œmaybe there will be some hope for some real reform and these permits wonâ€™t be just automatically granted, because right now, thatâ€™s what theyâ€™ve been relying on â€” this 1872 mining law.â€
â€œThe Forest Service and everybody has been saying, â€˜OK, we have to let them explore because this is the law.â€™ Acoma and the 19 pueblos, Hopi, as well as the Navajo Nation have been saying, â€˜Wait a minute. You have to consult with us under Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act.â€™ â€
Watchempino is hopeful the reform act will provide a measure of protection for Mount Taylor, near Grants, a sacred site to the pueblos, Navajo and Hopi.
Mount Taylor lies within the Acoma Cultural Province. On Dec. 15, 2006, by a vote of 19-0, the All Indian Pueblo Council passed a resolution of support for the protection of Mount Taylor and all sacred sites and cultural properties related to the pueblos in New Mexico.
The resolution states that the issuance of uranium and coal exploration, development and processing permits within the Pueblos of Acoma and Lagunaâ€™s cultural territory threatens irreparable degradation and impairment to the natural and cultural resources of the 19 pueblos.
â€œAffording the greatest protection to our watersheds and the public health is tied to the protection of the sacredness of significant cultural landscapes which serve as common places of worship and spiritual landmarks for all 19 pueblos,â€ the resolution states.
Jonathan Goldstein, director of the New Mexico Environment Departmentâ€™s Water and Waste Management Division, said Thursday that there is an application pending from Rio Grande Resources â€” owned by General Atomics â€” for a conventional underground mine on Mount Taylor.
â€œThey applied for a permit to de-water the existing underground mine. What theyâ€™re planning to do is de-water it and then resume operations. They told us that they would like to propose an alternate water treatment method,â€ he said.
The application has been deemed administratively complete, but the Environment Department is seeking further information from the applicant on its alternative water treatment method. Once that is complete there will be a public process on the permit.