New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are calling for a U.S. Senate committee hearing on a bill aimed at updating laws governing mining that have been unchanged for nearly 150 years.
Their effort comes at a time when an Australian mining company is planning to to conduct exploratory drilling on Santa Fe National Forest land near Tererro, north of Pecos.
The bill Heinrich and Udall are sponsoring would introduce a new royalty rate of 5 percent to 8 percent that would put hard-rock mining on the same level as other mining industries — requiring companies to fund cleanup of their abandoned mines, obtain permits for noncasual mining operations on federal land, allow for the petition of the secretary of the interior to withdraw lands from mining, and force a review of areas that may be unsafe or inappropriate for mining.
“Mining companies, both foreign and domestic, are governed today by a law that has changed little since the actual California gold rush that gave rise to the act in the first place,” the senators said in a news release Wednesday. “America’s mining laws have remained relatively untouched since they were established by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. This antiquated system puts most public lands at constant risk of new mining, lets industry off the hook for toxic mine cleanup, and robs the American people of royalties from mining.”
The mining industry opposes such measures. In response to a similar bill in the U.S. House, the American Exploration & Mining Association last month called the legislation “a disaster in the making for the domestic mining industry and for America.”
In a news release, the organization said such legislation “would substantially chill private-sector investment in exploring for and developing minerals on federal land and dramatically increase our already extensive reliance on foreign sources of minerals.”
The senators said the bill would protect taxpayers in the event of another toxic spill like the Gold King Mine disaster that polluted waterways in the Four Corners region in 2015.
Because of the current federal law, taxpayers have had to foot the bill for the billions of dollars in cleanup costs at abandoned hard-rock mines, which Udall and Heinrich said have polluted 40 percent of the headwaters at Western watersheds.
There is a long history of hard-rock mining corporations operating on federal public lands in New Mexico. Currently, there are dozens of active mines either in operation or in the process of getting cleaned up.
Other senators signing the letter to the leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee included Democratic presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
New World Cobalt already has staked a claim to publicly owned minerals and wants to drill core samples in a search for metal deposits on just over 2 acres in an area that has a history of mining but is part of a forested canyon long popular for recreation.
Though lead and zinc operations closed in 1939, it took decades and millions of dollars to clean up a waste pile left by the Tererro Mine and nearby El Molino mill, where mined rock was processed.
Asked about New World Cobalt’s proposal, Udall spokeswoman Annie Orloff said, “It is a perfect example of the overall problem with our mining laws: We have an Australian company proposing to come in and mine U.S. public land in a treasured outdoor recreation area without paying any royalties, while taxpayers are still facing a multibillion-dollar liability for cleanup of abandoned mines from the past 140-plus years.”
Heinrich spokeswoman Whitney Potter said Heinrich “does not think this is an appropriate place for a mine, especially because it’s a high-use recreation area and because of the threat to water quality.”
Mark Allison, executive director of New Mexico Wild, said the pro-environment organization has requested the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department hold a public hearing on the Tererro proposal.
“It is difficult at times for communities to appreciate the need to protect certain public lands when there is no imminent threat,” he said in an email. “… We want to convene a community meeting soon to try to get people as much information as possible and to hear their concerns and questions.”