November 5, 2015

Post Gold King Mine spill, NM delegation wants mining reform

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Pollution in the Animas River after the Gold King Mine spill. Wikicommons.

Three members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation announced the introduction of legislation to reform federal mining laws that have been on the books, and largely unchanged, since just after the Civil War.

Pollution in the Animas River after the Gold King Mine spill. Wikicommons.

Pollution in the Animas River after the Gold King Mine spill. Wikicommons.

Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich joined with three of their Democratic colleagues in the Senate to introduce the legislation, while Rep. Ben Ray Luján is doing the same in the House.

The legislators note that the 1872 mining law allows companies to mine for gold, silver, copper, uranium and other minerals on federal land without paying royalties for extracting the resources. The legislators compare this to oil and gas where companies that drill for the resources must pay royalties to do so on public land.

This legislation would require a 2 percent to 5 percent royalty rate for all new mining operations. The exact amount would depend on the gross income on production. A separate fee of 0.6 percent to 2 percent would go towards paying for the cleanup of abandoned mines.

The Gold King Mine spill came after a company working for the Environmental Protection Agency breached the abandoned mine and released millions of gallons of contaminated waste into the Animas River. A sickly orange plume flowed down the river from Colorado into New Mexico and Utah, including through the Navajo Nation.

A report by the federal Department of the Interior found the EPA was at fault for the spill and that the team should have checked on the water level in the abandoned mine before the blowout.

The EPA announced on Wednesday that the agency’s Office of Inspector General is expanding the scope of its investigation into the cause of the spill.

The mine had been leaking into the river for decades.

“The Gold King Mine blowout proves that the status quo just isn’t working, and New Mexico and Navajo Nation communities are suffering the consequences,” Tom Udall said in a statement. “Gold and silver on public lands are a natural resource, just like oil and gas. Taxpayers deserve their fair share of the profit — and communities across the West need that money to clean up abandoned mines.”

Udall has pushed for reforming federal mining laws since his time in the U.S. House.

“Disastrous spills like the Gold King Mine blowout are easy to see. But the unnoticed toxins leaking out of thousands of abandoned gold, silver, copper, and uranium mines are doing enormous damage to our watersheds every day,” U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich said.

In addition to the two Democratic Senators from New Mexico, Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Edward J. Markey signed onto the legislation. All are Democrats.

In the House, Luján introduced similar legislation. Like the others, Luján is a Democrat.

The Gold King Mine is just one of hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines throughout the western United States, many of which are in the same area of Colorado.

This isn’t the first legislation that Udall, Heinrich, Bennet and Luján have announced since the Gold King Mine spill. In September, the four announced legislation to help recovery from the spill.