Toxic Legacy: 1872 Law Lets Miners Profit on the Backs of American Taxpayers

The recent wastewater spill from the abandoned Gold King Mine in Colorado captured the attention of the nation. A sickly yellow plume filled with high levels of lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals surged through the Animas River, a major waterway used for irrigation, recreation, and drinking water, forcing the closure of that river. The economic hardship was immediate; the ecological damage may take months if not years to be fully understood.

Make no mistake - the responsibility for this spill lies with the Environmental Protection Agency, and we join those in the local communities who demand answers as to how this happened. Multiple independent investigations are currently ongoing. We wish we could say that when those investigations are completed, we'll know how to prevent this from ever happening again.

We can't say that. The underlying problem here is not the EPA's blunder at this mine. The underlying problem is the toxic legacy of roughly 500,000 abandoned mines that riddle the United States, threatening local communities with catastrophic spills and chronically leaching metals and acid mine waste into nearby streams.

These toxic time bombs are the result of a nearly 150-year-old law designed to make it as easy as possible to settle and mine the West. The Mining Law of 1872 is, quite simply, a miner's dream. It allows mining companies to buy public land free and clear for as little as $5 an acre if they discover a valuable mineral deposit, and even when the land remains in public hands, companies extract billions of dollars of valuable metals that belong to the American taxpayer without paying a dime in royalties.

The law was passed in a time before we worried about environmental damage and corporate responsibility. There were no requirements to protect water quality, air quality, wildlife habitat, or to clean up the mess after mining stopped. The situation has improved somewhat in recent decades, but the 1872 Law limits the power our land managers have to ensure that mining meets modern environmental safeguards. It does absolutely nothing to address the multitude of former mines that present serious environmental and health threats - scars on our landscape left behind by mining companies that in many cases have long since disappeared.

The cost to clean these mines up has been estimated at between $20 billion and $54 billion. Right now, that cost would have to be borne solely by the American public, if Congress even agreed to pay it. Rather than leaving taxpayers on the hook, we should require the mining industry to cover the cost of cleaning up its legacy of contamination. This is not an earth-shattering idea. The oil industry currently pays a small fee on each barrel of oil to cover the cost of cleaning up spills. The coal industry pays a small fee on each ton of coal to cover the cost of cleaning up abandoned coal mines. But the hardrock mining industry pays nothing.

We have a bill that would change that. The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act would require large mining companies to pay a small 7-cent fee for each ton of earth they move. The resulting revenue - estimated at $200 million per year - would go toward cleaning up abandoned hardrock mines across the country and helping communities that have been negatively impacted by hardrock mining activities. The bill would also establish a royalty on metals such as gold, silver, and copper - much like one that currently exists for oil, gas, and coal - so that mining conglomerates would no longer have free access to precious metals owned by the American taxpayer.

This bill did not spring forth from the Gold King Mine spill - we have been fighting to reform mining in America for years. In 2007, a similar bill passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, but never became law. Republicans have by and large ignored the issue: the only action they've taken on mining is to try to create shortcuts through environmental laws to make it even easier for companies to get mining permits.

Now, in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill, some of them have started to profess great concern about the environment and the terrible impacts of this spill. It's unfortunate that they only care about the terrible impact of abandoned mines on Western watersheds and communities when it comes with a chance to attack the EPA. If they're serious about their concern, and they want to do something meaningful to prevent this from happening again, we invite them to join us in support of the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act. It's time to retire the 19th century mining laws to the history books along with the Pony Express and covered wagons and enact comprehensive mining reform policies for the 21st century.

Peter DeFazio (OR-04) is the former Ranking Member of the House Natural Resources Committee, Raul Grijalva (AZ-03) is currently Ranking Member of the House Natural Resources Committee.