Support builds in Congress over mining reform

ELKO, Nev. (AP) - After years of negotiations between environmentalists and industry groups, observers say efforts to reform a century-old law regulating mining may finally pick up steam in Congress.

Among proposals to reform the 1872 Mining Law are plans to implement royalties on mining profits for the first time and reclamation fees for cleaning up abandoned mines. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had testified to a Senate committee in July 2009 that he wanted reform that protects mining, protects the environment and provides for the cleanup of such mines.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the New Mexico Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is shepherding the broadest plan, which calls for an adjusted 2 percent to 5 percent royalty after transportation and processing costs are taken out. It also gives the Interior Department more discretion on environmental matters and calls for the money raised under the bill to be used for reclaiming abandoned mine lands.

The proposal has the support of a number of conservation groups, including the Washington D.C.-based Earthworks.

Cathy Carlson, an adviser to Earthworks, said Bingaman told conservationists who recently met with him that he hoped to move the bill out of committee in April.

"I am cautiously optimistic," she told the Elko Daily Free Press.

Carlson said one of the most important parts of the plan would establish a revenue stream for abandoned mine cleanup and job creation in that process. In talking with mining companies, she said many appeared open to such a reclamation fee.

Republican Reps. Doug Lamborn, of Colorado, and Rob Bishop, of Utah, have introduced a good Samaritan bill that allows mining companies and nonprofit organizations to clean up old mines without liability for old environmental damage. Bills introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., also focus on abandoned mine provisions.

Carlson said Udall's bill, which reduces cleanup liability under the Clean Water Act, has "broad support."

Sheri Eklund-Brown, chairwoman of the Elko County Commission who testified on the industry's importance in her county and northeastern Nevada, said she heard in recent conversations with Reid's staff that there will either be a revised Bingaman bill or a new bill from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on mining law reform.

Reid, a longtime supporter of the mining industry in Nevada, remains committed to ensuring any such reform is balanced and protects mining jobs in rural communities, said Jon Summers, his communications director.

The mining industry has repeatedly said it supports reasonable mining law reform, but that it opposes gross royalties that would be too costly to keep the nation's hard-rock mining industry viable.

Northwest Mining Association Executive Director Laura Skaer said her group is open to proposals that include an abandoned mine fund and a "reasonable net royalty on future claims."

But legislation on those royalties has had a hard time in Congress. U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., reintroduced a measure last year that failed to make its way to the House floor. It called for an 8 percent gross royalty on new mine projects on public land, a 4 percent gross royalty on existing operations, tougher environmental standards and reclamation of abandoned mines.

Lamborn and Bishop's proposal calls for a 2 percent net proceeds royalty on new mines on public land, an approach that leaders of the National Mining Association believe is a better fit with mining industry interests.

Eklund-Brown said she emphasized in NBC interview yet to air that any royalty must be industry-specific and not compared with those paid by industries such as oil and gas.

A lawsuit pending in courts this year also could reshape the industry. Mining interests are seeking to intervene in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. last fall over two U.S. Department of Interior rule-makings.

Among other things, they are challenging a 2008 ruling they say doesn't follow an earlier court order that the agencies should charge fair market value for use of public lands for mining when they aren't protected by valid mining and mill-site claims.

The National Mining Association, Barrick Gold Corp. and Round Mountain Gold Corp. have already filed their motions in opposition to the lawsuit, and the Northwest Mining Association plans to file in conjunction with the Alaska Mining Association.

"The biggest problem of all is the recent lawsuit filed by Earthworks over two rule-makings, and we will contest it very vigorously," outgoing NWMA President George Byers said in early December.

"If they succeed, they will get their way by legislating through the court system," he said of the environmental group.


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