New Mexico Senators Propose Bill to Charge Hard-Rock Mining Royalties

September 17, 2015


Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both New Mexico Democrats, plan to introduce legislation that would require companies mining for hard-rock minerals on public lands to pay royalties. The funds would be used to pay to clean up tens of thousands of abandoned mines across the United States. The proposed legislation would reform mining laws that have been on the books since 1872.


The senators proposed the legislation as a response to the Gold King Mine spill on August 5 that turned parts of the Animas River orange and yellow when heavy metal waste that had been sitting in the abandoned mine since the 1920s was spilled into the water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency admits that it caused the spill when crews were attempting to clean up the site. The agency’s supporters say the spill was a result of inadequate funds to pay to clean up waste rock piles in old mines.


The mining industry is prepared to oppose the bill. The National Mining Association suggested that Congress offer incentives to support voluntary cleanup of legacy mines. They believe Congress should remove the threat of liability for Good Samaritans, including private parties and members of the mining industry, who want to remediate abandoned mines.


Earthworks, an environmental group, believes the real problem is not the EPA, but rather the fact that there are 500,000 abandoned and inactive hard-rock mines across the country that may cost over $50 billion to clean up. There is no dedicated funding for those efforts. The group believes that unless hard-rock miners are required to pay royalties like coal miners, other environmental disasters like the Gold King Mine spill may happen.


The New Mexico Abandoned Mine land program was created in the early 1980s. It has invested $24 million in the cleanup of 261 abandoned coal mines. However, that is just a fraction of the 13,000 abandoned mines in the state. That number only includes abandoned mines in and around public lands. State and federal agencies have been cleaning up sites like uranium mines, but they have primarily been using federal funds because the state of New Mexico has not contributed much to the effort.