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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mapping out Mining Reform

Air Date: Week of

The 1872 Mining Act encouraged development and growth in the American West. A century later, the same law has left a legacy of dangerously polluted mines. Reforming the law is a high priority for the Clinton Administration, but reform could mean disrupting the economy and livelihood of communities. Reporter Richard Mahler traveled to Questa, New Mexico and spoke with residents about changing the law.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Back in 1872, the US Congress passed a mining law that was designed to encourage settlement and business growth in the new American West. Anyone who could prove that there were valuable minerals like gold or silver on land owned by the Federal government could file a patent claim, buy the land for $2.50 an acre, and keep whatever minerals they found. Today, hard rock miners can still have the land for $2.50 an acre, and still pay no royalties on the minerals they find. And in many places throughout the west, the public has been left with the bill for cleaning out thousands of abandoned mines. After years of debate, Congress is now on the verge of reforming the 1872 Mining Act. We'll go to Capitol Hill in a short while, but first, from New Mexico, Richard Mahler has this report on the battle over mining reform in the west.

(Mining sounds, hammering, noise of entrance gate)

MAHLER: The rusty entrance gate is shut and locked at the Union Oil Company's huge open pit mine in the Rocky Mountains of northern New Mexico. It's been three years since this back country road was filled with trucks hauling molybdenum, an anti-corrosive, high-strength metal.

SHOEMAKER: The mine is currently on standby. The molybdenum prices are depressed, along with a lot of other metal prices, because of the worldwide recession.

MAHLER: David Shoemaker supervises a skeleton crew of 10 workers at the Molybdenum Corporation mine, which reached peak employment in the mid-1980s.

SHOEMAKER: When we employed 850 people, we had a payroll close to $30 million. We were the largest, you know, private employer in northern New Mexico, and the economic impact on especially Taos County was tremendous.

MAHLER: Closure of the mine has had a devastating economic impact on nearby Questa, a community of 1,700 mostly Hispanic residents.


MAHLER: Lawrence Gallegos is a logger, prospector, and mayor of Questa.

GALLEGOS: Questa's pretty much been a mining town for the last 50 years. That's kind of a way of life here.

MAHLER: The nearby molybdenum mine is on land that was converted from public to private under the 1872 Federal Mining Act. This law encouraged exploitation of mineral resources through provisions that many now feel are too generous. For example, the Act allows private firms to buy public land for as little as $2.50 an acre, and, unlike the oil and coal industries, to sell minerals mined on those lands without paying a royalty. Mayor Gallegos is an unapologetic supporter of the Questa mine and the 1872 Act.

GALLEGOS: It's not necessarily a good idea to scrap the old mining law. There's got to be some consensus, and I think that as long as there's fairness so the industries can survive and keep the work force here and elsewhere in the United States working, if it's not broken don't fix it.

(Red River flowing)

MAHLER: But to many here, the law is broken. Tony Trujillo is one of a number of laid-off miners who don't want the molybdenum pit to reopen without extensive reform. When asked why, Trujillo points to the Red River, which runs past the mine before flowing through Questa and into the Rio Grande.

TRUJILLO: The water doesn't sustain anything. In the mine's point of view, along with a lot of the people from Questa, which were probably employed by the mine, believe that the river was always that way. I don't remember it always being that way. I saw big trophy fish that were caught by hand by some of those same guys that are saying that it was always a dead river.

MAHLER: Government officials confirmed that pollution has fouled what was one of the best trout fishing streams in the west. But they don't know how much of that can be blamed on the mine. Everyone does agree, however, that a tailings pond near the village has contaminated the water wells of several residents. And blowing toxic dust from the mine sometimes forces local schools to keep students indoors, or to shut down temporarily. Tony Trujillo was once engulfed in that dust while bringing his horse in from a pasture near the tailings pond.

TRUJILLO: Within that same week or weeks of that, I got a mouth infection where the gums in my mouth swelled up so bad that I couldn't see my teeth. I couldn't close my mouth because of the pain, because my gums touched each other. It was agony.

MAHLER: Such problems are far from unique according to former Interior Secretary Stuart Udall. Udall is founding chairman of the Mineral Policy Center, a Washington-based group lobbying for mining law reform.

UDALL: Questa Molybdenum mine is a prime example, in New Mexico at least, of what happens when you have unbridled mining without regulations, without requirements for reclamation. It's not only torn off the whole side of a beautiful mountain. Its effluents pollute the rivers and it's caused a lot of devastation.

MAHLER: Such thinking was vigorously opposed by powerful western senators. But when it became clear that some type of reform was inevitable under the new Administration, conservatives wrote a comparatively moderate reform bill, which passed the Senate last spring. Its sponsor is Republican Larry Craig of Idaho.

CRAIG: There is a consensus in the Congress that this is an archaic law, that it needs to change, that it's basically been a subsidy for mining companies. That even in the west, where mining is important, the practice has to change.

MAHLER: The size of that royalty is now the main bone of contention. The Senate bill assesses a 2% royalty on a mine's net earnings. The House version imposes an 8% royalty on its gross. The difference could amount to $100 million a year. Both bills require reclamation and restoration, but the Senate version follows current state and local guidelines, while the House imposes new, generally stricter rules. A House Senate Conference Committee will soon try to resolve differences. Like many in the industry, Questa supervisor David Shoemaker feels that plenty of existing mining laws already safeguard the environment.

SHOEMAKER: We're painted as the bad guys, and I think not justifiably so. Any mining on Federal land requires reclamation and a whole number of permits. I'm sure it's inevitable that some type of legislation comes about. Let's hope that what comes out of it is something that doesn't basically do away with the domestic mining industry.

MAHLER: Reformers say they want to preserve mining, but argue that existing laws are inconsistent and inadequate. President Clinton has promised to sign reform legislation, which could be on his desk by early March. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Mahler in Questa, New Mexico.



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