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As Gold King Mine Spill Anniversary Approaches, Udall, Heinrich, Bennet, Luján Prepare Bill to Prevent Future Hardrock Mine Disasters

1872 mining law reform bills would treat hard rock mining like oil and gas, require companies to pay a reasonable royalty for mine cleanup

WASHINGTON D.C. — Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.)Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) announced that they are preparing to introduce legislation to reform the nation's antiquated hardrock mining laws and prevent another toxic spill like the Gold King Mine disaster of 2015. Their announcement comes on the eve of the second anniversary of the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King Mine spill, in which 3 million gallons of polluted wastewater went coursing into the Animas and San Juan rivers, through Southwestern Colorado, Northwestern New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.

An estimated half million abandoned hardrock mines like the Gold King are scattered across the West, many leaking toxic chemicals and threatening downstream communities. Yet taxpayers are on the hook to cover the $20-$50 billion it would cost to clean up the mines. The lawmakers' bills offer a common-sense solution to take the burden off taxpayers.  

Current law dates back to 1872 and allows companies to take gold, silver, copper, uranium and other minerals from public land without paying any royalties. The lawmakers' bills would update the law and impose a common-sense royalty on hardrock mining companies — similar to that paid by oil and gas and coal companies for decades — to help pay for abandoned mine cleanup and prevent future disasters.  

Udall, Heinrich, Bennet and Luján, joined by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), championed similar House and Senate bills in 2015. They are seeking further stakeholder input prior to officially filing the bill. 

Separately, Udall, Heinrich, Bennet and Luján are pushing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to compensate the Gold King Mine accident victims, who include Navajo farmers and small business owners who were unable to use the contaminated water for drinking, irrigation or recreation weeks after the spill. The lawmakers also are working to ensure the EPA continues to pay for independent water quality monitoring in the Animas and San Juan rivers.

"Abandoned hardrock mines are ticking time bombs scattered all across the West, but less than $85 million is available to address these potential public safety and environmental disasters, which could cost tens of billions of dollars to clean up. Taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for the devastating consequences of future spills -- especially when there is a common-sense solution," said Udall, who has fought for mining reform continuously since he was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998. "We can see the consequences of our antiquated mining law in the suffering experienced by Navajo Nation farmers and others who are still waiting for compensation for the Gold King Mine disaster. Minerals like copper and uranium on public lands are a natural resource, just like oil and gas. Taxpayers deserve their fair share of the profit — and communities across the West deserve the certainty that the mines will be cleaned up." 

“In the Southwest, water is our most precious resource, so you can imagine the kind of impact the Gold King Mine blowout has had on our communities. Toxins leaking out of thousands of abandoned gold, silver, copper, and uranium mines threaten public health and damage our watersheds every day,” said Heinrich. “It is high time that Congress overhaul our outdated and ineffective federal hardrock mining policy so taxpayers aren’t the ones on the hook when something goes wrong. We cannot wait for more disasters to strike. We cannot continue to do nothing while thousands of abandoned hardrock mines drain toxic metals into our rivers and precious drinking water supplies. We must come together and pass these pragmatic reforms.” 

“The Gold King spill continues to be a reminder of the threat that abandoned mines pose,” said Bennet. “Hard rock mining is a part of our heritage in Colorado, but it is long past time to reform our antiquated mining laws. This bill would provide the resources necessary to help clean up the thousands of abandoned mines in Colorado, improve water quality, and prevent a future disaster for downstream communities” 

“Outdated laws that have been on the books for more than a century have left the American people to bear the brunt – and the cost -- of addressing the damage that has been done to our land and water,” Luján said. “The Gold King Mine spill was a painful reminder of the legacy of hardrock mining in the West that has resulted in thousands of abandoned mines that contain toxic materials. This bill ensures that mining companies that haven’t had to pay any royalties for the natural resource on our public lands begin to contribute to the much-needed effort to clean up abandoned mines.”

The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2017 would: 

- Require hardrock mining companies to pay an annual rental payment for claimed public land, similar to other public land users.  

- Set a royalty rate for new operations of 2 percent-5 percent based on the gross income of new production on federal land (would not apply to mining operations already in commercial production or those with an approved plan of operations). 

- Create a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund for abandoned mine cleanup. The fund would be infused by an abandoned mine reclamation fee of 0.6 percent-2 percent.

- Give the Secretary of the Interior the authority to grant royalty relief to mining operations based on economic factors. 

- Require an exploration permit and mining operations permit for noncasual mining operations on federal land, valid for 30 years and as long as commercial production occurs.

- Permit states, political subdivisions, and Indian Tribes to petition the Secretary of the Interior to have lands withdrawn from mining.

- Require an expedited review of areas that may be inappropriate for mining, and allow specific areas be reviewed for possible withdrawal.