Mining the Government.

It was August of 1995. President Clinton was vacationing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The snow-capped Tetons in the background created a wonderful photo opportunity for him to announce that he had saved Yellowstone Park from a disaster waiting to happen. He had made a deal with Crown Butte Mining Company to prevent them from going ahead with the New World Mine at Henderson Mountain, which was sure to despoil Yellowstone's pristine rivers and trout streams. What he didn't mention was that the deal was for $65 million in federal land or assets--$65 million for mineral rights that cost Crown Butte less than $5 an acre--a total of $225!

How can something like this happen?

You can thank the law passed to encourage western development when U. S. Grant was president -- the 1872 U. S. Mining Act. It set the price for staking a mining claim at $2.50 to $5 an acre, depending on what kind of claim. And it's probably the only place in the U. S. today where 1872 prices still apply. So why is it that we can't change this law--amend it or get rid of it somehow? Bill after bill and amendment after amendment has been proposed in both the House and Senate. And while the House managed to agree on one, reform legislation is still deadlocked in the Senate. The issues are not simple, and the emotions run high. They involve property rights, the environment and resources, historical precedence and constitutional rights.

First, there are already millions of acres of public lands under mining claim in the U. S., many of them near our most beautiful rivers and trout streams. (Most mining processes use lots of water.) Obviously, we can't afford to cut deals for them all. Nor do we want to risk them. And that's what we'd have to do, because the law says the government can't turn a project down if a claim is legally valid, and they can't take action against a mining company until after the damage is done.

Mining companies don't exactly have a great track record when it comes to the environment. In fact the environmental damage and health hazards are pretty astounding. Right now there are more than 424,000 acres of mining sites that have never been cleaned up. It will cost us billions to do it. The biggest, most polluted site on the federal Superfund list is a hundred mile stretch along the Columbia in Montana.

Montana, whose nickname is the Treasure State, and whose state motto is "Oro y Plata" (gold and silver), has a long history of being friendly to mining. Towns like Butte and Anaconda owe their existence to the rich copper deposits, which early in this century supplied 1/4 of the world's copper needs. At one time it was said that in Montana "everyone wears the copper collar". And these days it seems as if the politicians still do.

The Sage Brush Rebels versus the Bunny Huggers

The "Sage Brush Rebellion" began in the '70s when James Watt was Secretary of the Interior. The western states began a collaborative effort to fight for complete, local control of their lands. And there is a recent resurgence of the movement under the banner of "Wise Use". Their efforts are directed in behalf of, and largely funded by, the timber, mining and grazing interests. Their point is that the federal government is depriving them of both control and tax revenues in their own states. They use the "takings" clause of the Constitution in their court battles, which says, "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." And as Keith Knoblock, VP of the National Mining Association says, "If you have a property right taken away from you, then you deserve compensation." This has long been accepted when the government builds highways or dams on private property, but the Sage Brush Rebels claim that any regulations that restrict an owner's use, or a state's use (insert logging, mining, drilling, commercial development, etc.) are a "taking" and require governmental compensation.

This group, which likes to be called "Wise Use Managers" especially dislikes the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts (recently weakened) which restrict their commerce and revenues. And in the political rhetoric of disparagement they label those who would support these acts "Bunny Huggers" or "Tree Huggers". Even the word "Environmentalist" carries a disparaging tone with this group.

Ransoming Norman Maclean's River.

The latest assault from mining is designed to strike fear into the hearts of all trout fishermen and lovers of trout water. It threatens the Big Blackfoot River...the river that played the key spiritual role in Norman Maclean's story A River Runs Through It. Here is a sketch of what seems to be an environmental nightmare waiting to happen:

OK, you're starting to get the picture. Is this really going to happen? Public opinion, or something, has already caused Phelps Dodge Corp. to bail out, but the remaining partner, Seven-Up Pete, is acting as if it's ready to dig. That's always part of the mining company's strategy, so even if they don't fire up a single shovel the "ransom" will be raised. Naturally, the "Tree Huggers" and trout fishermen will be doing their best to stop the project.


But what about jobs and the economy?

The entire state of Montana has a population of about 840,000. It is a state where copper was the principal export and many can still remember Butte as a thriving but ugly town of 50,000 of some of the richest residents in the state. But most of the mines were shut down in the early '80's.

Of course the mining company talks of the jobs and money that will flow into Lincoln and neighboring communities. Some of the residents counter that most of the money that would flow out of this mine project would go to Arizona and Colorado where the companies are the corporate officials and stockholders. And it is true that the "extractive industries", mining, timber, etc., have a reputation for knowing how to dig and run or cut and run. Once the work is done the workers leave the town much as it was before, only stripped of the resources. Still, you can understand the Chamber of Commerce and City Council thinking of their local economy. You don't have income tax money if you don't have incomes to tax.

Not just a "Western" problem.

Closer to home here in the Midwest, the Crandon Mining Company (a partnership between Exxon and Canada's Rio Algom) says it wants to develop a copper/zinc mine in the headwaters of the Wolf River in Wisconsin. The Wolf is Wisconsin's largest whitewater trout stream says Trout Magazine. They're after 55 million tons of metal which lie in a massive sulfide deposit. And when sulfide's get exposed to air or water, they make sulfuric acid and heavy metals, and it's no mystery what those things do to a river.

Last year, Trout Unlimited urged Wisconsin lawmakers to support a mining moratorium bill introduced in their state legislature. The bill required that before the state would issue a permit for any sulfide mine, the mining company would have to have operated a similar mine in North America for 10 years without polluting surface and ground water, and a site must have been closed for 10 years without causing pollution. The bill passed 29-3 in the Senate and, in a rare victory for clean water, passed in the Assembly last month.

If you're a mining company that must be a real "Catch 22". If you've never had a sulfide mine, how would you ever prove you can run a pollution-free operation? You'd have to have at least a 20 year pollution-free track record before you could apply for a permit. Which may be OK, since currently we can't make the mining companies clean up after the damage is done. But it sounds like a zero-tolerance mining policy. Kind of like the question someone once posed to illustrate zero-tolerance in food products, "Just what is an acceptable level of radiation or rat feces in baby food?"

So, where does it stand, and what do you think?

There have been proposals in the 1998 budget to access a 5% royalty fee on minerals from public lands which could be used as a "bond" to deal with possible pollution. And, dozens of pretty good bills and amendments have been introduced. Most of these mining reforms have passed by wide margins in the House, but stalled in the Senate. You know why that is. Just to refresh your memory from High School Civics class, the House of Representatives represents population, while every state gets two Senators and two votes. The western states want to control their own resources and revenues, and they have the unified votes to stall proposals in the Senate.

Obviously we need mining reform, and the right answer is probably neither black nor white. The essence of our system--when it's working-- is compromise. When the timber interests were fighting for logging jobs and the "Bunny Huggers" were fighting to save the spotted owl, there were many reasonable compromises offered with benefits on both sides. But the emotions ran so high on both sides no one would give an inch, and nobody won. When the shouting died down, The Secretary of the Interior and the President pointed out just how Timber lost and the environmental interests lost as well because neither side would compromise. Make up your own mind where you stand on this mining issue, and let your legislators know.

You can also get news on Mining Law Reform, including text of the bills and amendments from the American Geological Institute Website at AGI GAP Geoscience and Environmental Legislation (105th Congress)

Both Senators Paul Wellstone and Rod Grams are on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. You can write them at United States Senate, Washington, DC, 20510.