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

January 14, 1994

Air Date: January 14, 1994


Mapping out Mining Reform / Richard Mahler

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. (07:15)

Senator Craig's Mining Law

Both Congress and the Senate have drafted new versions of the Mining Act. Host Steve Curwood talks to Senator Larry Craig, the chief sponsor of the Senate bill. Craig agrees that mining interests need to pay higher prices, but argues that Congressional reform costs too much and relies too heavily on Federal restrictions. (06:28)

Western Water Woes / Ruth Page

Commentator Ruth Page takes a swipe at Western water subsidies and the farmers who prosper from them. (02:41)

Staking out the State of the World / Lester Brown

Lester Brown of Worldwatch Institute gives a status report on the planet to host Steve Curwood. According to Worldwatch's annual report, State of the World, food production — from grains to seafood — is down and declining still further. (04:13)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Pye Chamberlayne, Lynn Terry, Richard Mahler
GUESTS: Larry Craig, Lester Brown

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The 120-year-old mining law has allowed private interest to extract billions of dollars worth of silver, gold, and other minerals from public lands in the American West, while paying almost nothing. And often leaving a toxic mess behind. There's long been sharp debate in Congress over reforming the mining law, but now some changes seem inevitable.

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.

CURWOOD: Also, a worrisome forecast about the world's food supply.

BROWN: This year we've seen a rather dramatic tightening on the food front, particularly for seafood and for rice. A tightening so dramatic that it's having far-reaching economic consequences.

CURWOOD: This week on Living on Earth, right after this news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

The Clinton Administration will delay controversial hikes in grazing fees for Federal land, the latest chapter in the ongoing battle between the Administration and the Senate over the issue. From Washington, Pye Chamberlayne reports.

CHAMBERLAYNE: President Clinton wrote a letter to western Senators, saying he would not raise grazing fees or change grazing regulations until after Congress has addressed the issue in late spring or summer. This contradicts Interior Secretary Babbitt's earlier promise to impose the new policy by decree this spring. Furthermore, Babbitt now says the regulations will be much less specific than originally planned, and will involve reduced grazing fees for ranchers with sound conservation practices. The Department is also considering giving local residents more power than originally proposed over grazing rules. Western senators hailed this as a welcome change in policy. Environmentalists say it is a disappointing retreat. All sides say it is a recognition of the political clout of western lawmakers. For Living on Earth, I'm Pye Chamberlayne in Washington.

NUNLEY: A new study suggests global warming could cause food shortages in developing countries. The world's overall food supply would remain nearly constant. The 3-year, 25-nation study is published in the journal Nature. It found that even under extreme warming conditions, countries in higher latitudes could actually see crop yields rise. But author Cynthia Rosenschweig of Columbia University says nations closer to the equator, many of them already poor, would see food production fall by 10 to 20%.

ROSENSCHWEIG: Agriculture in developing countries is already conducted at relatively high temperatures. And as the projections of global warming then are added on, the crops become more stressed.

NUNLEY: Rosenschweig says the struggle to pay for food would cause additional financial stress in these countries, widening the gap between rich and poor nations.

ROSENSCHWEIG: Having a group of countries that may be losers is a warning signal for us to be firm in our determination to act on this problem.

NUNLEY: The study focused on grain production; studies of fruit and vegetable production are also planned.

Renewal of an international agreement on timber may founder on the unwillingness of some developed countries to commit to sustainable harvesting practices. Tropical timber producers have agreed that all their forests should be managed in a sustainable fashion within seven years. But they want the same standard to apply to temperate countries as well, a move which these countries have so far rejected. The current International Tropical Timber Agreement expires in March.

The Army says its nearly complete chemical weapons incinerator in Tooele, Utah, will operate safely. But Utah officials have announced their own study of the facility's potential health effects. Incineration of almost half the nation's chemical weapons is slated to begin at the site next year. Utah says Army safety studies are insufficient, so the state will assess the risk of chronic diseases and cancer to residents near the plant.

This is Living on Earth.

The last slim hope for an environmental challenge to the recently ratified North American Free Trade Agreement has been dashed. the US Supreme Court has rejected a case which called for an environmental review of the pact. Several lobbying groups had won a lower court ruling that the Clinton Administration must conduct an environmental assessment of NAFTA. That ruling was overturned on appeal, and the high court has declined to review the decision. An attorney for one of the plaintiffs in the NAFTA case says the groups may now turn their attention to the newly-negotiated General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

The French government has dropped plans to build at least one of several controversial dams on the Loire, the country's longest river. From Paris, reporter Lynn Terry has the story.

TERRY: An environmental group which has camped out on the proposed downside of the Loire River for several years heralded the decisions as a great victory, saying it would preserve the last wild river in France. The government had planned to build four dams on the Loire and its tributaries to prevent flooding and create reservoirs. two of the projects will go ahead, but under pressure from environmentalists, the government has abandoned plans to build one dam and postponed a decision to build another one until 1998. Instead, a global river management plan will be put in place, involving restricting new development in the river's floodplain, banning gravel mining, and restoring the riverbank. The decision represents a turnaround in France, which has built dozens of dams in the past 50 years. For Living on Earth, this is Lynn Terry in Paris.

NUNLEY: Man's best friend is no longer welcome on the world's coldest continent. The last exploration of Antarctica by dogsled is underway, but at its conclusion the huskies will be sent packing, and the century-old practice of mushing across the South Pole will come to an end. In a step designed to protect seals from disease, the new Antarctica Treaty bans dogs and other non-native species, other than humans, that is, from the continent starting April 1.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Mapping out Mining Reform

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.

Back to top


Senator Craig's Mining Law

CURWOOD: As Richard Mahler reported, the differences between the two versions of the mining reform bill will be worked out by a House Senate Conference Committee. One of the major issues is money. Both chambers agree that the Federal government should no longer simply give away valuable minerals. But they disagree on the fair price. The Senate plan would charge a 2% royalty on the net value of the minerals, or about 21 cents an ounce for gold, while the House version would charge 8% of the gross, which is closer to $27 for an ounce of gold. Another big sticking point is what's called suitability. Right now, miners can patent almost any proven claim on public lands, even if a mine would ruin a scenic place or an important ecosystem. The House bill would limit that right, while the Senate bill would not. There are also differences over pollution control and reclamation of damaged land. The House would launch a Federal effort to clean up the tens of thousands of abandoned mines. The Senate version would leave cleanup efforts to the states.

The House bill's chief sponsor is Democrat Nick Rayhall II of West Virginia. The Senate effort is being led by Republican Larry Craig of Idaho. We invited both to speak with us. Representative Rahall declined our invitation, while Senator Craig came on the line from Washington.

CRAIG: Most of us who deal with mining law recognize the need for some reform. But to remember the economy is generally operating on metals and minerals. You know, we're driving cars and we're sitting in metal chairs and we're building metal houses nowadays, because nobody wants to cut trees. The question I think is, do you want a mining industry and do you want people working in it for the well-being of our economy? If you do, how much can you charge without putting people out of business?

CURWOOD: And you contend that anything higher than the 2% rate would put many, many miners out of business.

CRAIG: Well, I am saying that anything higher than 2% begins to put people out of business.

CURWOOD: Now, Senator, I want to ask you: what's your basis of having such a disparity in a royalty rate? When you look at coal it's about 8%; if you look at oil it's about 15%; natural gas is 16%, I think offshore's a little higher, 17%. Why do you call for such a much lower formula for the extraction of gold and other hard rock minerals?

CRAIG: Steve, you cannot look at one mineral and accept that as all. All costs of production are different. Our evaluation is one that was based on maximizing return without putting people out of business. It is the projection of some economists who've looked at this pretty hard that the 8% that is proposed in the House will put about 25,000 working men and women out of business.

CURWOOD: Senator, the House bill would create some 25,000 jobs, the advocates say, by having an aggressive Federal reclamation program. What about that aspect?

CRAIG: Federal jobs paid for by tax money, I'll tell you I am not that kind of an advocate.

CURWOOD: They say we pay for it out of the royalties that they will collect at the higher royalty rate.

CRAIG: That's a Federal tax that is leveled. I cannot believe the convoluted logic of a Federal legislator who says, well we're going to put 20,000 people out of work in the mining industry, but gee whiz, we're going to hire another 20,000 people to clean up the mess. Why don't we keep the people who are working, working, and hire the additional 10 or 12 thousand people to go in and do reclamation? Then you've got a net positive instead of a net zero.

CURWOOD: There are more than a half a million mine sites that have been abandoned, and many of these are quite dangerous hazards. Kids fall down them. One person, I guess, rode a motorcycle into one. How would your bill ensure that these hazards would be taken care of?

CRAIG: I don't believe, nor have I ever seen a Federal agency that can work and operate as efficiently and responsibly as a state agency. And so that's why my bill says state primacy, state responsibility. And that where there is an absence of state law, that there would be a minimal Federal standard that the states would have to come into compliance with. Then we provide the grants; we provide the stimulus money from the Federal level and from the royalty fees that come in, to help pay for these costs.

CURWOOD: Now, you say the state should do this. What about the Summitville mine in Colorado which many people say is a huge disaster of pollution? The company there went bankrupt; it's perhaps $60 million to try to clean up this mess. The bond was $4 million. That leaves taxpayers holding the bag for more than $50 million. Now the state regulations there didn't protect the people in Colorado and that watershed. What do you have in your bill that would ensure that if companies leave behind environmental disasters, that they'll be forced to pay for it and not the public?

CRAIG: Well Steve, first of all, you used the worst-case example, and where there is one worst-case there are hundreds of good cases that are working right now. You can always have a bankrupt company, no matter how much you bond. But I cannot use the logic that if the Federal government had been there, Summitville wouldn't be a problem. There are other areas where there is Federal primacy, in surface reclamation with coal, and yet we still have problems. In other words, it is not a risk-proof environment that we're working in.

CURWOOD: How much money would your bill raise for states to handle reclamation?

CRAIG: Well, I think that's hard to say. You can talk averages, and we're talking millions of dollars. it depends on the market.

CURWOOD: How about at today's price, then?

CRAIG: I don't have that figure at this moment at today's price.

CURWOOD: What about the notion of suitability?

CRAIG: Suitability is basically a simple question. When you find the metal or mineral in this location, can you mind it? Or do you allow the Federal government to say no, that's better habitat for an elk or a deer or a fish? And if you allow the Federal government that right, you've basically destroyed any new discovery or the mining industry itself. The question becomes, when you discover the metal, is how best to mine it in the most environmentally safe way, not to say you can't mine it because it's unsuitable. The environmental community would love the provision of unsuitability. If that provision is in the law, no compromise, we're back to the old law, we'll fight to not allow the reform.

CURWOOD: Thank you very much, Senator. Senator Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho, is the chief sponsor of the Senate provision to reform the Hard Rock Mining Act.

CRAIG: Steve, thank you very much.

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(Music up and over)

Western Water Woes

CURWOOD: Water is another natural resource that gets a big subsidy from governments in the American Southwest. And to commentator Ruth Page, it doesn't seem like a good deal for taxpayers.

PAGE: Flying over the American Southwest can give a traveler indigestion. Look down. There are lawns of super-thirsty eastern-style grasses, water-gulping golf courses, huge residential developments with swimming pools evaporating under a merciless sun. Worst of all, vast acreages planted to rows and rows of thirsty cotton plants. And this is desert. Native plants and animals in desert areas have adapted to the drought conditions. Many people who move there try to make the environment adapt to them. Some emigrate from eastern states accustomed to 35 to 45 inches of rain a year. They want a lawn and garden like the ones back home. For them, and to support drought area farming, the immense Colorado River has been sucked so dry it no longer reaches the sea. The barest trickle crosses the border into Mexico, though that country was at one time promised a share of the water.

Some southwesterners conscientiously zero scape. That is, they raise only drought-resistant plants. A few just pave the yard and paint it green, or put a few cactuses amid a spread of pebbles. Still, too many folks plant lawns and flowers as thirsty as dry sponges. You and I help pay for this water in the desert. It's heavily subsidized by Federal taxes. There are legal limits to how much tax subsidized irrigation water a farm can use, but according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, many farmers evade the law. Farmers working up to 960 acres of land get crop subsidies. So, the bigger owners simply subdivide and parcel their land out to spouses and offspring to escape the subsidy restriction. One 13,000-acre farm thus subdivided got water subsidies of $4.8 million from 1986 to 1989. They were able to save a million and a half dollars on the deal in those three years. You know what they grow on that land? Cotton. A crop the country has in such huge quantity, the government has to subsidize that, too, to keep the price up.

Congress estimates the cost of southwestern farmers using subsidized water to grow subsidized crops is about a billion and a half dollars every year. People wanting to move to the southwest may soon find there's land available, but no water. Los Angeles residents and businesses pay $545 per acre foot for their water, enough for a family of 4 for 20 months. San Franciscans pay $300. Yet some California farmers pay only $2 an acre foot. The farmers say they mightn't be able to farm if they had to pay the full cost of the water. Right! Maybe they're getting the message.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Ruth Page lives in Burlington, Vermont, and comes to us from Vermont public radio.

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(Music up and out)

Staking out the State of the World

CURWOOD: The 11th annual State of the World Report has just been released by the World Watch Institute in Washington. And as usual, this year's assessment is pretty gloomy. Lester Brown is the Institute's president and the book's chief author.

BROWN: One of these years, we'd like to publish a really upbeat State of the World Report, one that was just filled with good news. But unfortunately, that time has not come yet.

CURWOOD: Now, this year's bad news focuses on the tightening of the world food supply. Can you explain?

BROWN: What we've seen in recent months is a rather dramatic tightening of both seafood supplies and rice supplies. Rice, unlike the other two grains, is affected not only by the growing scarcity of land, but also the scarcity of fresh water that's emerging in many parts of the world.

CURWOOD: And what does this mean?

BROWN: This means that all the increases in output have to come from raising land productivity. And given that rice yields are already quite high in a number of Asian countries, this is becoming more difficult. The net result is that, over the last three years, world rice consumption has exceeded production. Stocks have been drawn down, and they are now down to the lowest level in some 20 years. This is why rice prices have doubled between the end of August and today.

CURWOOD: Now in the past, we've seen the price of grain double. In the 70s, for example, the price of wheat doubled. This didn't lead to a world food shortage, it just led to higher prices. Why should we be more concerned this time?

BROWN: The difference between the 70s and today is that in the 70s [there] was a great deal of unrealized production potential. Third World countries weren't using much fertilizer then. As the price of grain went up, they started using a lot more fertilizer and production responded. Today, there aren't that many things that farmers can do to get dramatic increases in production to bring prices back down. Water's becoming quite scarce throughout much of Asia. Land is scarce. And the use of additional fertilizer now is having a rather limited effect on production, compared with that of even 10 years ago?

CURWOOD: What's happening with seafood?

BROWN: The world fish catch, which increased more than four times from 1915 until 1989, has stopped growing. It's as simple as that. We appear to be pushing against the limits of oceanic fisheries. FAO says of the 17 major oceanic fisheries in the world, all are now being fished at or beyond capacity, and 9 are in a state of decline.

CURWOOD: And we're seeing a result in prices, you're saying.

BROWN: This is translating into substantial price rises. In this country, the rise in seafood prices over the last decade has been roughly double that for the other major sources of animal protein, such as beef or poultry or pork. We can probably handle that, because we spend such a small percentage of our income on food in this country. But in low-income countries, where people are spending 70% of their income on food, if the price of rice doubles, they're facing some serious belt-tightening. And belt-tightening for a lot of people who don't have any notches left.

CURWOOD: This is all a pretty bleak picture, Lester Brown. Is there any way out?

BROWN: Well, probably the most important thing we need to do now to arrest the decline in per capita supplies of seafood or rice or whatever, is to get serious about slowing population growth. Fortunately, we've just seen Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth announce that the US has adopted a goal of making sure that every woman in the world who wants access to family planning services will have it by the end of this decade. That is a goal that should have been adopted a long time ago, since there are still something like 100 million women in the world who want to limit the size of their families but lack access to the family planning services that would enable them to do so.

CURWOOD: Well I want to thank you. Lester Brown is president of the World Watch Institute in Washington and senior author of State of the World 1994, the World Watch Institute report on progress towards a sustainable society. Thanks for joining us.

BROWN: Okay, it's my pleasure, Steve.

Back to top

(Music up and out)

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth. If you have any comments, please write Living on Earth at Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Or call our listener comment line at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Transcripts and tapes are available at the same number and address for $10 each.

Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Jan Nunley, Chris Page, Colleen Singer Coxe, Jessika Bella Mura, Stacy Curwood, and engineers Laurie Azaria, Doug Haslem, and Mark Navan. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid transmission and distribution deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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