Senator Feinstein introduces legislation to create funding for cleanup of abandoned mines

By Izzy Martin, The Sierra Fund

Last month, Senator Feinstein introduced S.2750, a bill that modifies the requirements applicable to mining activities minerals on public domain lands, and creates a funding stream for cleanup of abandoned mines. Currently, there is no source of revenue for the cleanup of abandoned hard rock mines. Among other things, this bill would impose a royalty payment on all mining products, like the one now imposed on coal mining.  The fund will be used for the cleanup of sites that were mined for minerals like gold, silver, copper, lead and precious gems.

Hard rock mining companies are the only major mining sector not currently required to pay royalties to the federal government for the removal of minerals from public lands – even though the industry is experiencing near record high gold prices, around $900 per ounce.  In 2000, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimates that $982 million in hard rock minerals were taken from public lands – and the industry paid no royalties for those minerals.  By contrast, companies that extract coal, oil, and natural gas from public lands and waters pay royalties that range between 8 – 12.5 percent.  This is because the federal laws that regulate gold and silver mining operations were established by the 1872 Mining Law – and they have not been updated since.

The bill would direct several sources of revenue for the cleanup fund, including reclamation fees for all new and existing hard rock mines – modeled after a similar program for the cleanup of abandoned coal mines. The bill would also impose royalty payments for new and existing hard rock mines on federal lands, as well as increase transaction and maintenance fees for hard rock mining operations.

This funding source would be used to help close the estimated 500,000 abandoned mines in the United States.  As reported in The Sierra Fund’s newly released report Mining’s Toxic Legacy:  An Initiative to Address Mining Toxins in the Sierra Nevada, there are over 47,000 abandoned mines in California.  (Download a copy of the report here.)

According to Senator Feinstein, Abandoned mines in California and across the country pose a serious threat to public safety and health. Minerals from the mines have already begun to pollute our drinking water, crops and fish. And abandoned mine shafts endanger public safety. It’s clear that something must be done to clean up these hazardous mines.  The problem is that we lack a reliable and steady stream of funding – and the scope of the cleanup effort is enormous.  That’s why I’ve introduced a bill to create an abandoned mine cleanup fund. The bill establishes several sources of revenue to pay for the cleanup, including royalty payments and reclamation fees. We’ve seen that a similar program has helped to fund the cleanup of abandoned coal mines – and I believe that this is a sensible solution for the hard rock mining industry.” 

The bill would reform the 1872 Mining Law in a number of ways, including:

Creating an Abandoned Mine Cleanup Fund to be used to clean up and restore land and water resources adversely affected by past hard rock mining activities, including habitat cleanup and restoration.

Establishing spending priorities for the cleanup fund, based on the severity of the risk to public health, public safety, and the impact on natural resources. These priorities are similar to those included in the House-approved mining legislation (see next article for details on the House bill).

Directing the Secretary of Interior to create an inventory of abandoned mines on all Federal, State, tribal, local and private land. Once the inventory is complete, the Secretary is instructed to provide cleanup funding according to the spending priorities listed above.

Establishing three sources of revenue for the Abandoned Mine Cleanup Fund, including a reclamation fee of 3% of on all hard rock mineral mining; a 4% royalty on existing operations and 8% royalty on new operations that extract minerals from federal lands, and increased maintenance fees.
 
According to a press release sent by the Senator, the measure is intended to be one part of the comprehensive mining reform debate expected to occur in the Senate later this year. It states that Senator Feinstein is also supportive of efforts to reform mining law more broadly. 

The bill has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The full text of this bill can be found here.

Abandoned Mines in Sierra Nevada Conservancy service region
(compiled from information developed by CA Department of Conservation, Abandoned Mine Lands Unit)

County 

Number of Abandoned Mines

Alpine

102

Amador 

316

Butte

257

Calaveras

586

El Dorado

553

Fresno

605

Inyo

9,698

Kern

4,498

Lassen

434

Madera

213

Mariposa

973

Modoc 

297 

Mono 

2,519 

Nevada 

366 

Placer 

747 

Plumas 

477 

Shasta 

637 

Sierra 

520 

Tehama 

121 

Tulare 

262 

Tuolumne 

697 

Yuba 

65 

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