U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are digging into familiar territory with a proposal to reform the General Mining Act of 1872, which governs mining on federal lands. But the New Mexico Democrats’ plan to charge royalties on new mines to help fund the cleanup of thousands of old ones gives those mining companies, other extractive industries and the public the shaft.
The problems of using a 143-year-old law to regulate an industry with a historically checkered environmental responsibility record are well known.
From Gov. Bill Richardson in 2008 to U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman in 2009, New Mexico politicians have tried to come up with new rules that would balance taxpayers’ interests, environmental concerns and the economic importance of mining to New Mexico and to the United States.
The issue returned to the front burner earlier this year when the Environmental Protection Agency unleashed 3 million gallons of toxic sludge into the Animas and San Juan Rivers, fouling waters in three states, in its attempt to mitigate environmental concerns at the abandoned and seeping Gold King Mine in Colorado.
Udall calls the nation’s abandoned mines “ticking time bombs” that could cause more hazardous waste spills. He is right that August’s orange mess “should be a wakeup call to Congress about the dangers we face.”
But the answer is not a partisan proposal that punishes or disincentivises new operations and will take in an estimated $100 million a year to address a multibillion-dollar problem.
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