On Anniversary of Gold King Mine Spill, Senator Udall Delivers Speech Calling for Action on Hardrock Mining Reform

Urges Congress to pass his bill to reform 1872 mining law to finally end giveaways to mining corporations & get taxpayers their fair share

Following a press conference call announcing his bill to reform the nation’s antiquated 1872 mining law, U.S. Senator Tom Udall spoke on the Senate floor and called on Congress to act to pass his legislation to prevent another accident like the Gold King Mine spill in New Mexico and Colorado. Udall introduced the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015 today along with Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). The bill requires mining companies to pay a royalty for the privilege of extracting mineral resources from public lands that would help pay to clean up abandoned mines and ensure that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for the cost. There are tens of thousands of abandoned mines throughout the West, 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.

“We have a 19th century law – totally inadequate to 21st century challenges,” Udall said. “The spill at Gold King Mine earlier this year tells the story, with terrible damage in my state, in other states, and in the Navajo nation. This is a disaster on many levels – to our water, our economy, and our culture.”

“But under current law, the mining companies do not pay,” he continued. “Not for the minerals they take. Not for the damage they have done. This cannot continue. They cannot continue to reap all the benefit – hundreds of millions of dollars – while taxpayers continue to shoulder all the burden.”

Udall has pushed for mining reform since he was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and passed a unanimous amendment to the Fiscal Year 2013 budget resolution calling on Congress to enact a royalty for mining on public lands.

“Coal, oil, and gas companies have paid royalties for many decades. Hardrock mining companies – including foreign companies mining federal lands – should do the same. Our bill will require that they do.”

Below are Udall’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

I rise today to introduce the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015. First, I want to thank Senator Heinrich for working with me on this bill. I appreciate all his hard work – and commitment – to this important legislation. And Senator Bennet and Senator Wyden – thank you for your support. And I also want to thank our New Mexico colleague, Congressman Ben Ray Lujan, for his efforts on the House side.

We are proposing this bill for one reason – to reform the Mining Law of 1872. It is a matter of simple fairness. It is a matter of common sense. And it is reform that is long overdue.

The 1872 law played a historic role in the settling of the West. It encouraged mining – for silver, gold, copper, uranium and other minerals – on public lands. It helped the West to grow. But, there was a price. One we are still paying. It did almost nothing to compensate the public. It did nothing to protect the environment. And it did nothing to require mines to clean up the mess.

The legacy is clear. Thousands of abandoned mines. Contaminated land. Polluted streams. Costly clean-up. And taxpayers stuck with the bill. We have a 19th century law – totally inadequate to 21st century challenges.

The spill at Gold King Mine earlier this year tells the story. With terrible damage in my state. In other states. And in the Navajo nation. This is a disaster on many levels – to our water, our economy, and our culture.

Mistakes were made at Gold King Mine. We have to do all we can to make sure they are not made again. And to make sure that our communities are fairly compensated for losses. That’s why Senator Heinrich and I introduced the Gold King Mine Spill Recovery Act of 2015.

But the Gold King mine disaster is also a wake-up call. The mine is still there. The owners are not. There are up to 500,000 abandoned mines in our country. They are a ticking time bomb. They are leaking toxins into our rivers and streams in the West – and have been for decades. It will cost tens of billions of dollars to fix this. Anywhere from $20 billion to $54 billion. A mining royalty will bring fairness to taxpayers – and help pay for clean-up.

I have pushed for – and I will keep pushing for – mining reform. First in the House, and now in the Senate. Because I believe in a simple principle: The polluter pays. But under current law, the mining companies do not pay. Not for the minerals they take. Not for the damage they have done. This cannot continue. They cannot continue to reap all the benefit – hundreds of millions of dollars – while taxpayers continue to shoulder all the burden. This goes against every notion of simple fairness. Working Americans know this. Middle class families know this. Both sides of the aisle know this.

The 1872 law also still basically gives away federal land. For $5 – less than what a working American pays for lunch – mining companies can buy an acre of federal land…if they discover a valuable mineral deposit. So there’s no surprise here. Hardrock mining companies don’t want reform. They’ve had a free ride for a long time. No wonder they want to keep it. But it is long past time for that ride to end. Coal, oil, and gas companies have paid royalties for many decades. Hardrock mining companies – including foreign companies mining federal lands – should do the same. Our bill will require that they do.

It is not a radical idea. The oil industry pays a small fee on every barrel of oil. The coal industry pays a small fee on each ton of coal. And the sky has not fallen in. And when disasters happen – from oil spills to abandoned coal mines – these industries bear some of the cost. Madam President, history may explain why the 1872 law was created. But it is hard to see why it should continue. What began as an effort to settle the West has become a gravy train for multi-billion dollar companies. And not just American companies, but foreign ones as well.

We know that taxpayers are getting shortchanged. We just don’t know how much. In 2011, I asked the GAO for the numbers. They couldn’t say. Not only do the hardrock mining companies not pay – they don’t disclose. And under current law they don’t have to. Not how much they extract from federal lands. Not where the minerals are sold. Not the overall value. At the same time, oil, gas and coal brought in $11.4 billion in federal revenue.

We need to get this done. We can’t keep asking working Americans – and struggling communities – to foot the bill. While mining companies reap the profit.

Madam President, let’s be clear. The silver and gold on public lands are natural resources. They belong to the American people. They should be an investment for the public good. Not a giveaway for private gain. After my father left office – after 8 years as Interior Secretary – he said mining reform was his greatest unfinished business. 50 years later, we still need to do this. And we need to do it now.

We have an outdated law. Special treatment for the profits of large hardrock mining companies is not a reason to keep it. At least not to the taxpayers of my state. It is time to stop giving away the store. It is time to reform the mining law of 1872. It is the right thing to do. It is the fair thing to do. I urge my colleagues to support this bill – and get it done.