While the West has transformed and evolved greatly since the pioneer days, mining laws remain largely unchanged. Hardrock mining and extraction is, to this day, governed by President Ulysses S. Grant’s General Mining Law of 1872.

Five U.S. Senators, including Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, have introduced the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 in an attempt to reform that 140-year-old law and provide a modern mechanism by which we might cleanup abandoned mines throughout the West.

Colorado’s past and present are intricately tied to the hardrock mining industry. In the late-1800s, pioneers ventured West in search of storied riches awaiting discovery beneath the earth. The pioneers were by no means the first people to occupy the land, but their capacity for appropriating and shaping the land far exceeded the practices of their Native American predecessors. Beginning with the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in 1858 and lasting for decades, Colorado experienced an enormous population boom as people flocked to the area in search of gold, silver and other valuable minerals.

Today, mining still plays a large role in our economy, and active as well as abandoned mines dot the landscape. It is estimated that there are currently 7,100 abandoned mines in Colorado, more than 200 of which are collectively leaking thousands of gallons of acid mine drainage every minute.

“Disastrous spills like the Gold King Mine blowout are easy to see, but the unnoticed toxins leaking out of thousands of abandoned mines are doing enormous damage to our watersheds every day,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

Throughout the West, estimates soar upwards of 500,000 abandoned mines.

Under current law, companies can extract gold, silver, copper, uranium and other minerals from public land without paying any federal royalties. This is one of the last vestiges of the old public land giveaways that enticed and encouraged people to settle the Wild West. Oil, gas and coal companies, on the other hand, pay annual rental payments for extraction activities on public lands.

“Hardrock mining companies have enjoyed a sweetheart deal for nearly 150 years, leaving taxpayers on the hook to clean up hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines leaking toxins and threatening communities across the West,” said Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, who has been pushing for mining reform since he gained federal public office in 1998.

Current funding mechanisms fall far short of the tens of billions of dollars needed to clean up harmful mines around the West. A major component of the new bill would be the creation of a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund, under which new mining companies would pay annual royalties into fund totaling 2 to 5 percent of gross income. In addition, new and existing active mines would pay reclamation fees totaling 0.6 to 2 percent of gross income. The fees alone are expected to generate upwards of $100 million annually. The Reclamation Fund would provide resources to aid abandoned mine reclamation projects and would be distributed to states, tribes and other organizations through a grant program.


Before the questions come pouring in, I will make it plain that this law would have zero impact on the cleanup effort underway at the Eagle Mine.

First of all, the new act has no retroactive power. Owners of inactive and abandoned mines would not pay fees or royalties; only active mining operations, both new and existing, would contribute to the Reclamation Fund.

Secondly, the royalties would not be sufficient to cover all abandoned mine cleanups, thus the distribution of funds will be prioritized to reflect immediate needs. We are extremely fortunate to have a willing and able responsible party at the Eagle Mine who has been an active partner in the cleanup effort for nearly three decades. In places around the state where there is no active responsible party, taxpayers (read: you and me) are footing the cleanup bill. The 2015 Act aims to shift the financial responsibility from taxpayers to mine operators; it is not intended to help responsible parties conduct ongoing cleanup efforts.

The Colorado Mining Association has released statements expressing concern with the new law. Stuart Sanderson, President of CMA, says the proposed legislation “doesn’t provide workable solutions associated with abandoned historic mines that operated prior to the era of modern mining regulation.”

While the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 will not be a panacea capable of reversing the harmful legacy of mining in the West, we believe it is a step in the right direction.

Kate Burchenal is the education and outreach coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at 970-827-5406 or visit www.erwc.org.

This article ran in the Vail Daily on November 15, 2015.