Heinrich Delivers Senate Floor Speech On Mining Reform Bill

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Nov. 5, 2015) - Today, after unveiling S. 2254, the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015, during a teleconference, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) delivered a Senate floor speech on the bill to reform the nation's antiquated hardrock mining laws. Senator Heinrich joined U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) in introducing the bill today.

AUDIO: New Mexico, Colorado Lawmakers Introduce Mining Reform Legislation in Response to Gold King Mine Blowout During Teleconference  [DOWNLOAD AUDIO]

The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 will ensure mining companies pay royalties for the privilege of extracting mineral resources from public lands. The bill helps ensure that taxpayers aren't on the hook for cleaning up abandoned mines, many of which are continuously leaking toxic chemicals into rivers and streams and have the potential for catastrophic disasters like the recent Gold King Mine blowout. The Gold King Mine accident spilled 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers, and communities in New Mexico and Colorado are still struggling to recover from the impact to businesses and farms.

Senator Heinrich's remarks as prepared for delivery are below:

 Mr. / Madam President,

In August, a large plume of bright orange mine waste spilled into the Animas and San Juan Rivers and polluted the Four Corners region.

After the Gold King Mine spill, I toured affected communities in New Mexico and in the Navajo Nation.

I met with impacted residents, including farmers in Aztec and Shiprock, San Juan County leaders, and Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez, and Attorney General Ethel Branch.

In the Southwest, water is our most precious resource, so you can imagine the kind of impact this disaster has had on our communities.

My colleagues in the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Committee on Indian Affairs have held hearings to investigate the Environmental Protection Agency's actions which led to the spill and to bring proper oversight to the agency's response.

Last week, the Department of the Interior released a report of its independent technical evaluation of the EPA's actions.

The evaluation found that the EPA did not properly appreciate the engineering complexity of cleaning up the Gold King Mine and that it could, in fact, have prevented the spill.

I share the anger and frustration that my colleagues, and particularly that my constituents, have expressed over this terrible accident.

We must continue to demand that the EPA act with urgency to protect the health and safety of affected communities and repair the damage inflicted on this watershed. This must be our first and top priority.

But we are doing a disservice to the American people by not taking action to address the thousands of other similarly contaminated abandoned mines that litter the West and are leaking toxins into our watersheds. 

There are estimates that 40 percent of Western watersheds have been polluted by toxic mining waste and that reclaiming and cleaning up abandoned mines could cost upwards of 32 to 72 billion dollars.

This latest disaster was all too familiar for those of us from the Four Corners region and to many across the West.

In 1975, in an even larger accident than the Gold King blowout, a large tailings pile near Silverton, Colorado spilled 50,000 tons of tailings laden with toxic heavy metals into the Animas River watershed.

In 1979, a breached dam at a uranium mill tailings disposal pond near Church Rock, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation, sent more than 1,000 tons of solid radioactive waste and 93 million gallons of acidic liquid into the Rio Puerco.

Disastrous blowouts and spills like these are easy to see.

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But the toxins leaking silently out of thousands of abandoned hardrock mines are doing even more damage to our watersheds every day.

For decades before the spill, the Gold King Mine leeched water laced with heavy metals and sulfuric acid into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. 

Over the last 10 years, an average of 200 gallons of highly polluted water per minute-or more than 100 million gallons per year-flowed out of this mine into the Animas River via Cement Creek.

The Gold King and other abandoned mines in the San Juan Mountains in Southwestern Colorado continue to pollute the Animas and San Juan watershed as we speak.

Beyond the immediate cleanup of the Gold King spill, it is high time that we as a Congress overhaul our abandoned mine cleanup policies to make future disasters less likely and to address the thousands of abandoned mines that are polluting our watersheds. 

The Navajo Nation, which was perhaps most affected by the Gold King Mine blowout, has more than 500 abandoned uranium mines.

Last month, I met with officials at the Navajo Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation and Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action office and learned about their efforts to clean up hundreds of sites.

I visited a large uranium tailings disposal pile in Shiprock that sits close to the San Juan River, Shiprock High School, and the Northern Navajo Nation Fairgrounds.

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Melvin Yazzie, a senior reclamation specialist with the department, toured me through an abandoned uranium mine site in the Red Valley Chapter of the Northern Navajo Nation. Carrying a Geiger counter, he showed me the abandoned mine and a nearby house that was constructed using materials contaminated with radioactive elements.

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The Navajo government is doing its best to address the legacy of uranium mining and milling, but I can tell you that they do not have anywhere close to enough resources or funding to do the necessary work to clean up the waste from decades of mining.

A large reason why the Navajo Nation lacks adequate resources, and why communities across Indian Country and the entire West dealing with pollution from abandoned mines lack resources, is that we have not updated our federal laws on hardrock mining in 143 years.

During the era of Manifest Destiny, the federal government encouraged Americans to settle newly acquired lands in the West by passing laws - like the Timber and Stone Act of 1878 and the Desert Land Act of 1878 - that gave away public lands and resources to private users with no strings and often no price tag attached.

The General Mining Act of 1872 came along during this era of unrestrained Western expansion.

It allowed individuals and companies to claim ownership of minerals in the public domain - such as gold, silver, copper, uranium, molybdenum, and others - simply by locating a mineral source, staking a claim, and paying $5 an acre for the land.

Miners did not have to consider environmental impacts or make any plans to clean up the waste they left behind, which has created the pollution and contamination we confront today.

This law drew thousands of people to the West - my father and my mother's father both made their livings working in hardrock mining. But shortsighted policy also left behind a scarred legacy on our lands.

Unlike other 19th century western settlement laws, which have long since been reformed or replaced, the Mining Act of 1872 is still on the books.

While developers of resources like oil, natural gas, and coal pay royalties to return fair value to taxpayers for our public resources, hardrock mining companies still mine publicly-owned minerals for free.

And we still don't have a plan to address a century of pollution from abandoned mines.

We desperately need to bring our mining laws into the 21st century.

That is why I am joining my colleague from New Mexico, Senator Tom Udall, and my colleague from Colorado, Senator Michael Bennet, to introduce legislation to reform our outdated and ineffective federal policy on abandoned mines and hardrock mining.

Our legislation will require that reasonable royalties and fees from hardrock mining be used to create a dedicated funding stream for cleaning up toxic mine waste.

A reclamation program will allow states, tribes, and non-profit organizations to collaborate on projects to restore fish and wildlife habitat affected by past hardrock mining and repair watersheds that are the source of essential agricultural and drinking water for many Western communities.

This legislation will also reform the permitting process for new mines. Hardrock mining companies will need to protect water and wildlife resources and provide financial assurance that they can fund reclamation and restoration efforts after their mines close.

These are commonsense reforms that, frankly, Congress should have adopted decades ago.

I appreciate the value of the hardrock mining industry and recognize that the industry continues to provide good-paying jobs throughout the West.

Some mining companies are already stepping up to help clean up old mining waste sites.

I look forward to working with industry stakeholders to find practical ways to bring our policies up to date.

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 pragmatic reforms to our outdated federal hardrock mining laws.

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