A bill introduced by Colorado and New Mexico legislators was introduced to Congress last week that would require a collection of royalties from companies mining on federal lands to provide funds for cleaning up abandoned mines. Senators Tom Udall, D-NM, Martin Heinrich, D-NM, and Michael Bennet, D-Colo unveiled the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 that would reform the 1872 Mining Law.
The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 would require companies mining on federal land to pay royalties that go towards the cleanup and restoration of spills and abandoned mines. Currently, the 143 year old Mining Law does not require companies to pay royalties of any kind to fund the clean up of past and present mining projects. This is unlike the oil, coal, and gas industries which have been required to pay cleanup and restoration royalties for decades.
“It just makes sense to create the same kind of clean-up fund for hardrock mines,” said Brad Powell, director of Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project for the Southwest region. “Mining companies that benefit from development on public lands should play a key role in the cleanup and not leave the bill for taxpayers.”
The bill was introduced exactly three months after the Gold King Mine spill that dumped 3 million gallons of toxic sludge into the Animas River near Durango. Fortunately there was no massive fish kill from the spill and the Animas is recovering nicely.
But the Gold King Mine is the tip of a very grim iceberg. Throughout the entire American West- from Colorado to Montana to California- abandoned mines pose an imminent threat to water quality and fisheries. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 40 percent of headwaters in the West are affected by abandoned hard rock mines.
Although the Animas was the most notable spill, the same tragedies are happening throughout the west. The Uncompahgre River near Ouray is lifeless until the metals fall into the depths of Ridgeway Reservoir. The upper Animas River suffers mine waste that steadily drains into the river at a volume equal that of the Gold King Mine spill once a week.
Senator Cory Gardner and Representative Scott Tipton are also working to introduce legislation for "Good Samaritans" like TU that would provide legal protection to those parties that voluntarily clean up abandoned mine sites and spills.