U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, has once again introduced legislation attempting to reform what he describes as an outdated hardrock mining law.
On Tuesday, Heinrich introduced the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act, which would strengthen the regulations for hardrock mining. U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, also a Democrat from New Mexico, is listed as one of the co-sponsors.
This comes after New Mexico has faced several mining-related disasters over the years. One of the high profile disasters was the Gold King Mine Spill of 2015 that sent a plume of heavy-metal laden water into the Animas River in Colorado that ultimately flowed into New Mexico.
Heinrich has been pushing for hardrock mining reform for years and the legislation he introduced this week is similar to what he has introduced in the past. However, an infrastructure package that passed last fall created an abandoned hardrock mine reclamation program. The legislation introduced on Tuesday would send revenue to that program to address abandoned mines.
This new legislation would require those who have mining claims to pay rent, similar to other public land users such as oil and gas companies. It would also set federal royalty rates ranging from five percent to eight percent. Revenue from royalties and rent payments would go to cleaning up historic mining sites. The legislation would also allow the Interior Secretary to grant mining operations relief from royalty payments based on economic factors.
The current laws regulating hardrock mining were passed in 1872. In a press release, Heinrich highlighted that the law predates New Mexico’s statehood by 40 years.
“This law drew thousands of people to the West to earn a living, including my father and my grandfather who worked in hardrock mining. But shortsighted policy also left behind a scarred legacy on our lands and water,” he said in the press release.
Heinrich said the “antiquated” law has led to heavy metals leaking into waterways and acid mine drainages impacting streams and rivers across the western United States.
“Unlike the way we manage other publicly-owned natural resources like coal and oil, we don’t collect any royalties on hardrock minerals to return fair value to taxpayers,” Heinrich said. “We also don’t have a reclamation fee to help with cleanup work, and we lack a clear process to protect the types of places that simply aren’t appropriate for mineral development. It’s long past time to change that.”
In addition to the revenues from the leases and royalties, under the proposed law money for cleaning up abandoned mines would come from an abandoned mine reclamation fee of 1 percent to 3 percent.
Heinrich has also proposed new requirements, including an exploration permit and a mining operations permit, for what the press release called “non-casual” mining operations on federal lands. These permits would be valid for 30 years and could continue for as long as commercial production is occurring at the site.
The legislation defines casual use as collecting “geochemical, rock, soil, or mineral specimens using hand tools, hand panning, or nonmotorized sluicing.” That means someone who decides to try their hand at panning for gold in a waterway would not be required to obtain those permits.
Finally, the legislation would allow Indigenous tribes, states and political subdivisions to ask the interior secretary to withdraw lands from mining. The interior secretary currently has the authority to do that for federal oil and gas, as was demonstrated last fall when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced that lands around Chaco Culture National Historical Park would be withdrawn from the federal leasing program for oil and gas.
The legislation comes amid a push to increase the amount of energy from renewable sources. This requires mining, as U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, highlighted in a press release. Grijalva has introduced similar legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Minerals like copper and lithium are essential for our clean energy future, but that doesn’t mean we should sacrifice our environment, health, and sacred or special places just to get them,” he said. “Our current mining law was put in place before we even knew what a car was, much less an electric one. By keeping this outdated system going, we’re telling mining companies it’s okay to wreak total havoc on our environment and then leave American taxpayers to foot the cleanup bill. Modernizing this relic of a law isn’t extreme or anti-industry—it’s just common sense.”