Mining Law Overhaul Faces Senate Hurdle

Posted March 13, 2007 at 11:52am

Legislation to overhaul the 135-year-old federal law that governs mineral mining on public lands may clear the House in the 110th Congress but appears unlikely to see the light of day in the Senate because of the influence of Western Senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Environmental groups have been campaigning for years to reform the General Mining Law of 1872 — signed by President Ulysses S. Grant to promote development of the American West — saying the law is hopelessly outdated. Under the law, mining companies can “patent” mineral claims on public lands for as little as $2.50 to $5 an acre and pay no royalties on the minerals they extract, including gold and copper.

Furthermore, environmentalists say, the law contains no environmental requirements, even though toxic chemicals used in mining are blamed for polluting the air, land and water.

House passage seems likely, with the ascension of a key ally of environmentalists in the fight — Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) — now chairing the House Natural Resources Committee, said Lauren Pagel, policy director of Earthworks, a mining watchdog group. Rahall has sponsored comprehensive mining overhaul legislation in recent years.

It’s in the Senate where those efforts run into what an industry official terms “the geography of mining law reform.” Western states where mineral mining is an important part of the local economy wield disproportionate influence in the chamber.

In a report released this week, the Congressional Research Service noted that most current mining activity governed by the law occurs in five Western states: Nevada, Arizona, California, Montana and Wyoming. According to the CRS, 35 percent of the activity in fiscal 2005 occurred in Nevada — home to Reid.

Reid’s office did not respond to a request for comment by press time, but the likelihood of the Senator’s opposition — coupled with an expected veto from President Bush should a bill somehow manage to pass both chambers — is prompting overhaul advocates to rethink their strategy.

In the Senate, environmentalists plan to build local support to “beat the drums” for change, Pagel said. “We have a lot of educating to do in the Senate,” she said.

Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the industry’s trade group, the National Mining Association, agrees that those efforts will face obstacles in the Senate. “Something workable is going to have to come out of the House” to win support from Western lawmakers, she said.

The NMA has supported its own changes to the mining law in the past, though environmentalists call them insufficient. NMA officials will be meeting to discuss mining concerns with Rahall, with whom it has worked on coal issues, Raulston said.

The NMA’s own principles for a mining overhaul will focus on the economic impacts of changes to the law, Raulston said, noting that the improved global market for metals in recent years has made mining opportunities in the United States more attractive to investors. When considering changes, the group will ask, “does this keep the United States a reasonable place to make investments?”

A spokeswoman for Rahall confirmed that a mining overhaul is a priority for the lawmaker but said the efforts “are still in the planning stages.”