U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, is leading efforts to modernize mining laws as the transition away from fossil fuels increases demand for certain metals and minerals.
Heinrich introduced the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act on Friday in the Senate while U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, introduced the legislation on the House side.
Current mining laws date back to 1872 and have left a slew of unremediated sites across the west, placing watersheds at risk of contamination and people recreating outdoors at risk of collapsing structures.
“We cannot go all in on a clean energy future with a 19th century mining policy on the books. This antiquated law has become a driving force behind centuries of legacy mining pollution that is leaking toxic heavy metals and acid mine drainage into streams and rivers all across the West,” Heinrich said in a press release. “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. We also don’t have a reclamation fee to help with cleanup work, and we lack a clear process to protect the public lands that aren’t appropriate for mineral development. It’s overdue we change that.”
According to the press release, companies have extracted more than $300 billion worth of metals like gold, silver and copper as well as minerals from public lands without paying any royalties.
The abandoned mines that have been left behind will cost billions of dollars to clean up, which is often an expense borne by taxpayers.
The press release states that 40 percent of headwaters in the western United States have been contaminated by legacy mine sites.
In addition to imposing federal mineral royalties, the bill would create a fund to clean up past contamination and abandoned mine sites. It would also eliminate the patenting of federal lands for mining and would require the review of certain lands within three years to determine if they should be made available for future mining.
“A just and clean energy transition isn’t possible if the mining industry and its destructive practices carry on business as usual. Since even before the 1872 Mining Law, Tribal nations, Black, Brown, rural and frontline communities have fought for their health and future in the face of insufficient environmental protections and no requirements for mining companies to pay to clean up their pollution after they leave town,” Kiara Tringali, senior government relations representative at The Wilderness Society, said in a press release praising the introduced legislation. “We need a renewable energy transition and it cannot be an excuse to perpetuate injustices and corporate favoritism. We’re counting on Congress to pass the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act to ensure that the minerals we need are extracted responsibly with careful consideration for the wellbeing of our communities, health, water and cultural sites.”