U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are digging into familiar territory with a proposal to reform the General Mining Act of 1872, which governs mining on federal lands. But the New Mexico Democrats’ plan to charge royalties on new mines to help fund the cleanup of thousands of old ones gives those mining companies, other extractive industries and the public the shaft.
The problems of using a 143-year-old law to regulate an industry with a historically checkered environmental responsibility record are well known. From Gov. Bill Richardson in 2008 to U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman in 2009, New Mexico politicians have tried to come up with new rules that would balance taxpayers’ interests, environmental concerns and the economic importance of mining to New Mexico and to the United States.
The issue returned to the front burner earlier this year when the Environmental Protection Agency unleashed 3 million gallons of toxic sludge into the Animas and San Juan Rivers, fouling waters in three states, in its attempt to mitigate environmental concerns at the abandoned and seeping Gold King Mine in Colorado.
Udall calls the nation’s abandoned mines “ticking time bombs” that could cause more hazardous waste spills. He is right that August’s orange mess “should be a wakeup call to Congress about the dangers we face.” But the answer is not a partisan proposal that punishes or disincentivises new operations and will take in an estimated $100 million a year to address a multibillion-dollar problem.
Because the legislation has no Republican co-sponsors in the GOP-controlled Congress, it’s likely to be as productive as a mined-out deposit.
Udall, Heinrich and co-sponsors Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M, propose setting a reclamation fee on all so-called hard rock mines, including gold, silver and copper. They would also set a first-ever 2 to 5 percent royalty rate based on gross income on production of new mining operations and a separate royalty on minerals extracted from new mines. The money would go into a cleanup fund.
The point they miss, or choose to ignore, is that American miners compete in a global economy. Add significant costs as this legislation would do and it simply gives our international competitors an advantage. That is, of course, unless the real goal is to eliminate hard rock mining in New Mexico and the U.S. – along with all the jobs, paychecks and taxes paid that go with it.
The permit process for mining in the United States is woefully bureaucratic and time consuming. And requiring cleanup plans and bonds to cover new mining operations is appropriate. But punishing mining companies trying to compete in a global economy for sins of the past is a bad idea.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.