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Heinrich to introduce mining reform legislation in wake of Animas spill

Sen. Martin Heinrich will introduce legislation next month that would change federal law to allow for the collection of royalties from mining companies to help clean up toxins that like those that contaminated the Animas River in Colorado and New Mexico.

The New Mexico Democrat is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“Sen. Heinrich is planning on introducing legislation to reform hardrock mining regulations when we’re back in session in September,” his spokeswoman, Whitney Potter, told me in an email today. “In the wake of the mine waste spill in Colorado, the need to accelerate mine cleanup efforts is clearer than ever.”

In an interview on KUNM radio this morning Heinrich noted that a 143-year-old federal mining law allows mining companies to extract valuable minerals on lands the federal government owns, but it doesn’t allow the federal government to extract royalties from the companies. The existing law created in 1872 came on the heels of the California gold rush, when Congress was trying to encourage settlement by offering free minerals and land to those willing to go West and mine.

The Animas spill was caused by federal and contract workers who accidentally unleashed mining toxins into the river at the abandoned Gold King mine near Silverton, Colo. The contaminated water that flowed into a tributary of the Animas and San Juan rivers contains high levels of arsenic, lead and other potentially toxic heavy metals.

“What it shows is that the existing policy doesn’t work,” Heinrich said on the KUNM radio show. “For 143 years, since the 1872 Mining Act was passed, we’ve been giving away federal minerals with no royalties being returned to the American people. What that means to communities like Farmington or the Navajo nation or any of the communities along the Animas is that there is no dedicated funding stream to make sure these mines get cleaned up.”

The Republican Party of New Mexico said Heinrich is pointing blame for Animas in the wrong direction.

“”It is truly disappointing that Senator Heinrich lacks the courage to hold the EPA accountable and is instead exploiting this catastrophe to double-down on leftwing policies that will kill jobs and do nothing to protect our environment, while growing the very out-of-control federal agency that created this mess in the first place,” said Pat Garrett, the party’s spokesman. “That’s a Washington solution from a Washington politician who has clearly lost touch with New Mexico.”

Heinrich wouldn’t be the first New Mexico lawmaker to try to tackle the mining royalty issue. In 2009, former Sen. Bingaman, D-N.M., introduced a measure that would set royalties on hard-rock mining on federal lands for the first time, establish a fund to reclaim abandoned hard-rock mines and eliminate patenting — which has conveyed title to mining companies to develop mines on public land for as little as $2.50 an acre.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., co-sponsored Bingaman’s bill and also plans to introduce or co-sponsor mining law reform this fall, said his spokeswoman, Jennifer Talhelm. Udall helped author an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2014 budget resolution, which called for reform of the 1872 mining law to fund cleanup in states.

“This was a very important first step to closing this long standing loophole,” Udall said when he introduced the resolution. “At a time of such strict fiscal constraints, we cannot afford free access for large companies to extract minerals like gold, silver, copper, and uranium from public lands with no compensation to the taxpayers. We have abandoned mines that need cleanup throughout the West and mining royalties and fees should cover those costs and help reduce our deficits.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, has introduced a bill in the House that would establish an 8 percent royalty on new mines and a 4 percent royalty on existing mines.

Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association – an industry trade group in Washington – told me today the organization supports some reform, but not Grijalva’s bill.

“We have supported changes to the mining law, such as Good Samaritan provisions that would allow mining companies and others with engineering expertise to help address abandoned mine lands,” Popovich told me. “But we don’t support an 8 percent royalty that would be the highest among our international competitors, stop domestic mining of minerals that our industries need and create losses of high-wage jobs and mining revenue essential for many local communities. ”

Earthworks, a national environmental group that focuses on mining pollution, estimates that there are over 500,000 abandoned and inactive hardrock mines strewn across the country. The abandoned mines could cost as much as $50 billion to clean up, according the Environmental Protection Agency, which has admitted to inadvertently causing the Animas spill.

“We need mining reform legislation to be able to dedicate funds to clean up these mines,” Heinrich said, adding that most of America’s abandoned hardrock mines are “concentrated along the Rocky Mountains in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah Arizona …and places like Montana and Wyoming.”

“I’ve seen data to to suggest as many as 40 percent of our mountain headwaters that we rely on for drinking water in the northwest part of the state and down through the Rio Grande region and even municipal places like Albuquerque that have been polluted by abandoned mines where the mining company disappeared years ago,” Heinrich said. “They were the responsible party where you have a subsidiary that no longer is profitable they can declare bankruptcy and the American people or the people of Farmington or the Navajo Nation or the people in Questa are left holding the bag.”