Back to Montana River Action
Montana River Action
Search This Site
Home Email
Join MRA

Reform 1872 Mining Law

Pick and Shovel icon1. General
There is a national need for Congress to reform the antiquated Federal Mining Law of 1872. For over 124 years mining companies have removed billions of dollars worth of gold, silver and other minerals from our public lands and forests. Many of these companies are foreign owned, yet none have paid any royalties back to the public treasury. Hardrock and placer mining abuses have been permitted on public land for much too long.

Now is the time to stop this free lunch at public expense. The General Mining Law of 1872 was passed during President Grant's term. The cost to the public has been enormous in terms of rivers and streams polluted, mountain sides permanently scarred, hazardous and toxic wastes endangering the public health and safety. The 1872 mining law gives the industry license to loot and pollute.

Claims of mass unemployment due to mining reform are a fabrication from an industry anxious to defend its subsidized and privileged status. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that reform induced mining cutbacks will put 1,400 people out of work temporarily but the proposed abandoned mine reclamation program will provide jobs for 2,600, a net gain of 1,200 jobs. Reclamation and restoration will create thousands of jobs in rural western communities.

2. Patenting

Since 1872, more than 3.2 million acres of public land has been patented into fee title private ownership by mining companies, for $2.50 an acre for placer hydraulic claims within stream riparian areas. It is $5.00 an acre for hard rock claims. Mining companies, very cheaply, claimed these lands into private ownership. Patenting public land into private ownership should be eliminated and all pending patent applications must be made public information. A mineral leasing system must replace the mining and patenting system. For example, Canada leases mining claims for an annual fee and the land does not leave public ownership. The system does not dampen the vigorous mining industry in Canada. That way, the public retains ownership of the land and the claimant secures the opportunity to develop the mine. 15

Mining is a boom and bust industry. When lands are mined out, the public is burdened by private property within public land boundaries. Taxpayers have been burdened by buying back old patented claims that are needed for public purposes.

3. Royalties

Mining does not pay a royalty on public owned minerals. They should be required to pay a fair share of their profits back to the public trust. An 8 percent gross royalty on locatable minerals should be assessed with 50 percent of the proceeds earmarked for the abandoned mine lands reclamation fund. Mining companies get an additional free tax ride in the depletion allowance since mining depletes their ore body. Oil and gas leases on federal land now pay a 12 ? percent royalty on their net proceeds. Coal leases pay an 8 to 12 ? percent royalty. Mining on private land may pay up to an 18 percent royalty. If 50 percent of royalties and leasing fees collected would go into reclamation, then taxpayer bailout for reclamation would end.

4. Land Managers Discretion

Present time federal land managers cannot deny a mining company the right to mine. If the 1872 Mining Law is reformed with a law that allows the land manager to consider environmental impacts and to determine if an area is suitable or unsuitable for mining, then public land managers would be allowed to determine if an area is too sensitive to certain types of mining. A system should be adopted where the land managing agency can deny a proposed mining operation if its environmental costs outweigh its benefits. The land manager must be allowed to conduct a land planning process to review the suitability of lands for mining.

5. Reclamation and Bonding

Montana has 150,000 acres of un-reclaimed mining lands. Eroding waste dumps and leaking tailings ponds are poisoning surface and ground water. Mining produces more than 50 billion tons of solid waste nationwide each year. More than 10,000 miles of streams are degraded by acid mine drainage, heavy metal contamination and mine chemical pollution. It is common knowledge that mining practices have been so destructive that the states and federal government have had to finance rehabilitation programs to save the nation's assets. The cost has fallen on the taxpayer.

The Summitville pit gold mine in Colorado was opened by Canadians in 1986, was subsequently patented, then abandoned in 1992 in bankruptcy. Taxpayers are left with $60 million in cleanup costs and Summitville is now on the Superfund program. There are currently 52 mining related sites on the Superfund National Priority list. An abandoned mine reclamation fund should be created to restore land damaged by hardrock mining and paid for from mineral royalties. Cyanide solution is used to leach gold from 15-foot lifts of low-grade ore. Acid mine drainage occurs when high sulfide ore bodies react with oxygen and form sulfuric and hydrochloric acid. Strong measures to protect surface and groundwater must be put in place. True reclamation of some mined lands may not be possible.

Federal reclamation standards for all surface disturbances must be established. States should then be given the responsibility to enforce reclamation law and to exceed minimums if necessary. Re-vegetation, erosion control, fish and wildlife habitat protection should be mandated following the end of mining operations. Best available technology should be required to prevent acid or toxic drainage in waterways. Full reclamation should be structured into the ongoing mine operation costs. Bonds should guarantee the taxpayer would not have to bear the cleanup costs and long-term maintenance and monitoring for waste rock dumps, spent heap leach pads and tailings dams.

6. Recreation, Casual and Small Mining Exemption

Eliminate the 5 acre small mine exemption. All mining operations shall be treated the same whether large or small. Eliminate the term “casual use” from regulations. There is no such thing as casual or recreation mining. All mining will increase in scope and disturbance is discoveries are made. Require advance approval of all “Plans of Operations”, whether less or larger than 5 acres in size. All mining exploration activity must meet with the land manager's approval and be covered under the permit system, however small it may initially appear. One thousand small miners each digging up their reach of gold bearing stream is a public land manager's nightmare.

7. Valid Mining Claims

  • Full environmental costs must be considered in determining whether a mining claim is valid, including natural resource damage, long and short-term environmental costs and the loss of public use of mined lands. Validity must be based on more than just the marketable value of the mineral.
  • Allow a citizens challenge of all claims on public lands.
  • A temporary cessation of all mining claims should be in place until Congress makes a comprehensive reform of the 1872 Mining Law.
  • There is a flood of new mining claims now being staked on federal land to try to get under the restrictions that may come with mining law reform.
  • Require a surface disturbance fee of $50 per acre.
  • Do away with the $100 a year destructive “prove up” work now required on unpatented claims.
  • The annual charge to retain a valid mining claim should be $100 an acre. This will eliminate the trespasser using the loose 1872 Mining Law for a recreation residence.

8. Mining Plans

Approval of operation plans should be required before active mining is allowed. Complete plans will eliminate the numerous expansion permits that are epidemic in the industry.

9. Penalties

The only recourse for federal land managers to deal with mining violations is to file court suits against the violator. This is an expensive, time consuming, laborious way to deal with immediate violators and polluters. Efficient action is necessary to stop land degradation. Land managers must be allowed to give administrative penalties for violations and mine plan non-compliance.

10. Summary

The antiquated Federal Mining Law of 1873 is a rip-off of public land and resources. A committed minority of miners can fend off the casual majority of citizens. We can continue to turn a blind eye to the abuses occurring daily, or we can stop the abusive mining practices to which the industry has become addicted.

Reforming mining laws will prevent the giving away of public resources and allow citizens to more clearly review and influence what mining companies do on public lands. The government should have broad authority to consider environmental costs of metals mining on public land and to protect the safety and health of the public from damage to land and water. Sooner or later Congress will act to reform this archaic 1872 law and hopefully it will be sooner. The new 2007 Congress is discussing oversight of anti-environment initiatives by the present Administration and strengthening laws ignored by them. Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV) may be the new chairman of the House Resources Committee. The congressman has a history of trying to end giveaways under the 1872 mining law. ~

Back to Montana River Action
304 N 18th Avenue • Bozeman MT 59715 • Phone: 406-587-9181
Search This Site
Home Email
Join MRA