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This is the first of a series of diaries on the mining industry.  It is timely due to changes in the 1872 Mining Act being slipped in the back door by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA).  AKA the Pombo Amendment to the Budget Reconciliation.

From Pombo's official congressional website:

Sacramento Bee published a stinging editorial (pun intended) on September 27, 2005.  Link is to, which has lots more BG on Pombo.  Also saves the trouble of logging in to the Bee:

Here's a bizarre thought: If we don't drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we have to sell off national parks to help balance the national budget.

That grotesque notion has slithered full-grown from the dim recesses of Rep. Richard Pombo's brain. The Tracy Republican is chairman of the House Resources Committee, the most important House committee on public lands issues.

The whirring sound you hear is Theodore Roosevelt, the founder of our national parks and national wildlife refuge system and a Republican of a different sort, spinning in his grave.

More, much more, below the fold

 The San Jose Mercury News published an editorial on the Pombo Amendment, Wednesday, November 2:

Earth Needs Protection From Pombo

Last week, Pombo persuaded the House Resources Committee to approve language for the budget act that erodes the national moratorium on offshore oil and gas leasing in federal waters by offering states who agree to drilling a bigger share of the royalties.  The budget language also would revive a dormant practice of selling public lands to companies that have mining permits on them. And -- this can hardly be a surprise -- it endorses drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Environmental blindness is a Pombo specialty. He's pushing for a highway from the Central Valley over Mount Hamilton into East San Jose.  There's only one reason to build it. A river of concrete through an unspoiled landscape would be a symbol of the swath of destruction Pombo is cutting through environmental protections.

This, the first diary in the series, introduces the 1872 Mining Act, and the 1994 moratorium on selling public lands to mining companies at $2.50-5 per acre.  Unlike oil extraction, no royalties are paid on the products of hard rock mining.  I don't know the order yet, but upcoming topics in the series will address:

  • Gold, Gold mining in Nevada, cyanide, Western Shoshone Defense Project
  • Case study of the proposed Summo Copper Mine in NM
  • Harry Reid's actions on behalf of the mining companies
  • Indigenous rights & land claims issues, in the US and around the world
  • The Ugly Canadian, the role of Canadian [shell] companies in insulating profits from cleanup costs
  • Superfund: e.g. Summitville Mine in Colorado & Pegasus Gold
  • Details on the Pombo Amendment

1872 Mining Act

After the Civil War, the U.S. turned its attention west.  The first trans-continental railroad was completed in 1869.  By the end of the 1870s, almost all the western tribes had been subdued, treaties were signed, and the natives were confined to reservations, opening the rest of the West to settlement.  During that period, government survey expeditions were sent out.  One of their missions was to map out mining resources.  One of the survey leaders, Clarence King, left government service shortly thereafter, and became a business partner in various mining ventures, cashing in on all he'd learned while on the government payroll.  The revolving door between government and industry is not a new thing.

In 1872, the Congress passed a Mining Act.  It was in a similar spirit to the earlier Homestead Act of 1862.  Its purpose was to promote the settlement of the west through incentives to mining.  Like the Homestead Act, one of the main requirements was to do improvements on the land.  The Mining Act required proving there were minerals on the land.  The government would then sell the land to the miner for $2.50 to $5 per acre.  No royalties were charged.  At that time, mining was carried out mainly by prospectors with burros and pickaxes, pretty much the same as the California 49ers.  Mining claims were 20 acres in size, with an additional 5 non-mineral-bearing acres allowed for a millsite.


Above right was taken by photographer Timothy O'Sullivan on the Clarence King survey, 1868.  One of the precursors to today's US Geological Survey.  Nowadays, mining is something else entirely.  The 19th century Nevada town shown above has been engulfed by one of these:

The following comes from 1994 NPR "Living on Earth" January 14, 1994, in segments entitled Mapping Out Mining Reform and Senator Craig's Mining Reform: Full transcript here.  We'll start with a few basics on the 1872 Mining Act:

Back in 1872, the US Congress passed a mining law that was designed to encourage settlement and business growth in the new American West. Anyone who could prove that there were valuable minerals like gold or silver on land owned by the Federal government could file a patent claim, buy the land for $2.50 an acre, and keep whatever minerals they found. Today, hard rock miners can still have the land for $2.50 an acre, and still pay no royalties on the minerals they find. And in many places throughout the west, the public has been left with the bill for cleaning out thousands of abandoned mines. After years of debate, Congress is now on the verge of reforming the 1872 Mining Act.  We'll go to Capitol Hill in a short while, but first, from New Mexico, Richard Mahler has this report on the battle over mining reform in the west.

The show looks at the Molycorp molybdenum mine.  It's in the local area, here in the northern part of NM.  The place is a "pit", with multifaceted problems.  Back to the 1994 NPR segment:

MAHLER: But to many here, the law is broken. Tony Trujillo is one of a number of laid-off miners who don't want the molybdenum pit to reopen without extensive reform. When asked why, Trujillo points to the Red River, which runs past the mine before flowing through Questa and into the Rio Grande.

TRUJILLO: The water doesn't sustain anything. In the mine's point of view, along with a lot of the people from Questa, which were probably employed by the mine, believe that the river was always that way. I don't remember it always being that way. I saw big trophy fish that were caught by hand by some of those same guys that are saying that it was always a dead river.

Jumping ahead, Molycorp was declared a Superfund site in 2000.  Here's a link to the community group funded by EPA for community participation in the cleanup process, and a picture of the mine, made by Lighthawk, a nifty non-profit that matches up volunteer pilots with various environmental problems & advocacy groups in need of aerial photography.

Annotated version of the image here.  The white smudges in the distance are the tailings ponds.  The village of Questa lies in between.  One of my beefs with NM Governor Bill Richardson is that he's often on the "wrong side" of local issues.  In the case of Molycorp, which was in his Congressional district, he was one of the last people to come on board for Superfund designation.  It's tough to move stuff forward if your Representative is standing in the way.  But I digress.  Back to NPR.

MAHLER: Such problems are far from unique according to former Interior Secretary Stuart Udall. Udall is founding chairman of the Mineral Policy Center, a Washington-based group lobbying for mining law reform.

UDALL: Questa Molybdenum mine is a prime example, in New Mexico at least, of what happens when you have unbridled mining without regulations, without requirements for reclamation. It's not only torn off the whole side of a beautiful mountain. Its effluents pollute the rivers and it's caused a lot of devastation..

Mineral Policy Center has since changed its name to Earthworks Action.  They've got a lot of experience in mining work; their website's worth a look on background.  I'll return to them later.

MAHLER: Such thinking was vigorously opposed by powerful western senators. But when it became clear that some type of reform was inevitable under the new [Clinton] Administration, conservatives wrote a comparatively moderate reform bill, which passed the Senate last spring. Its sponsor is Republican Larry Craig of Idaho.

The big unresolved issue was royalties to be paid for extracted minerals.  Craig's bill assessed a 2% royalty on net value of extracted metals.  The House version called for 8% of gross.  At the time the difference amounted to 21 cents versus $27 per ounce of gold.  There were also differences between the House and Senate bills regarding cleanup and reclamation requirements.  The House bill was the stricter of the two.

Finally, there were differences about when the authorities (usually Bureau of Land Management) could turn down a mine proposal.  The 1872 Mining Act was based on the premise that some activities could be relocated.  (Like ski areas.  Not that they had them back then.)  But mining could only occur where the ore bodies were located.  So mining was given primacy over other activities.  The mining industry, to this day, still asserts that same argument: Ore bodies are only where they are, so they come first, and everybody else - no matter what - just has to get out of the way.

Nobody much else lived west of the 100th meridian back then, where it was too dry for farming anyhow.  Except for a few pesky Indians.  The military's primary mission, once the Civil War was over, was to subdue the natives, making the region safe for settlement.  By 1872, most of them had been confined to reservations.

Sidebar:  Most everyone's heard of General George Armstrong Custer, of "Custer's Last Stand" at the Little Bighorn in  Montana.  Less well known is part of the reason why he was hated by the natives.  1868 treaty with the Sioux set up a reservation.  In 1871, Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills on that reservation, and sent word back there was "gold in them thar hills".  The resulting rush of prospectors led to the Black Hills being taken from the Rez.  They still ought to be returned, IMHO.

1994 Moratorium on Patenting

The differences between Craig's bill and its counterpart in the House were never resolved.  All that came out in the way of compromise was a moratorium on the sale of public lands under 1872 ("patenting").  So the mines proceeded, but on public land.  That meant more regulation and reviews, such as for Endangered Species and Clean Water Act, for Historical and Cultural Properties.  But nothing in the way of reclamation bonds.  And no stopping mines.  If there was an Indian burial ground, it had to be exhumed and moved.  No protection for active cultural practices.  Measures were imposed for minimizing erosion and water pollution.

By the end of the Clinton years, states had started adding their own controls and restrictions.  Montana passed a ban on the use of cyanide in gold mining by referendum.  Despite various industry challenges it's held up to the present day.  Other states, including New Mexico, added more robust bonding requirements.  And Clinton's Interior Department, headed by Bruce Babbitt was starting to "Just Say No" to particularly bad projects.  One example being the complete rejection of the proposed Glamis Mine in Quechan traditional sacred use area in southern California near Yuma.  A great victory.  But only until the Bush Administration decided to revisit it. More here at the Sacred Land Film Project website.

These gigantic modern mines, with their humongous piles of waste rock, couldn't fit within the 20-to-5 ratio of mineral bearing land to millsite.  In recent years, some good victories were won in litigation, demanding allegiance to that provision of the 1872 Mining Act.  So, there has been increasing motivation for the industry to want the act to be revised.  In order to make it even more favorable to industry.  Hard to believe that could be possible, but it is.  Meanwhile, fiscal conservatives were a little troubled at mega-billions being made off mines for which the government didn't even get enough money to cover the salaries of the people doing the paperwork to hand over title to the land.

Enter Rep. Pombo.  He's slipped an Amendment onto the Budget Reconciliation.  I'll go into that in a later installment in this series.

Originally posted to Land of Enchantment on Sat Nov 12, 2005 at 10:49 PM PST.

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