By J. P. Tangen
For Mining News 

Bright spot surfaces in grim outlook

Provision in economic stimulus package aimed at cleaning up abandoned mine lands may blunt pressure for mining law reform


Last updated 2/22/2009 at Noon

The hardships that the economic crisis is imposing on Americans across the country at all economic levels and in all regions cannot be overstated. The mining industry is not immune and may have been a bellwether for many as risk capital began to dry up over a year ago anticipating the spreading disaster.

The entire horizon is not entirely black, however. Gold as an intuitive store of wealth has continued to hold its ground well, and prognosticators are fairly consistent with their anticipation that gold will pass through the $1,000 per ounce level soon and remain there.

Other more tentative commentators project that metal mining, in general, will lead us out of the recession, because as a basic industry, mineral commodities are fundamental to construction of all sorts. It is fair, I think, to surmise that America will build its way out of this crisis, whether we are building schools, parks, bridges or highways.

There is one other tiny silver lining in this dark cloud as well. Over the past 30 years, Congress has levied many assaults on the domestic mining industry. The industry has met the attacks in many ways. Where the allegations were that mining was a dangerous industry, we weathered the creation of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The result being that in 2008, the smallest number of mining-related deaths occurred since records have been kept.

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Where it was contended that mining polluted the air and water, responsible response to environmental regulations has made the industry an environmentally friendly neighbor across the state and across the nation.

Where it was said that mining tore up the earth, reclaimed site after reclaimed site is evidence that mining is a transient use whose footprint can be and is being successfully erased from the countryside as deposits are mined out and native vegetation and wildlife re-establish a home in formerly mined areas.

Historically, mining has scarred the earth. In the days before strict oversight, there was no legal reason for not leaving the waste of mining behind when moving on to more promising locations. As public objection wound its way through the lawmaking process, the old ways became illegal and then nonexistent. Bonding replaced promises, and responsible parties found themselves on the short end of superfund inquiries.

Nonetheless, an open sore has long festered and has been the bane of all responsible mining operators. That lesion is the so-called abandoned mine lands or AML. Mining operations from one end of the American West to the other, dating back into the 19th Century, did scar the earth and did leave hundreds of trickles of acid mine drainage sterilizing the soil. In some instances, the contaminated sites were massive.

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Everyone, inside the industry and out, has called for their cleanup. Opponents of mining have sought to lay an extraordinary punitive tax on mining operations in order to fund AML cleanup. Mining companies, recognizing that such abandoned sites might once again be profitably mined, have unsuccessfully sought "good Samaritan" protection so they could enter on the contaminated lands, remedy the insult and profitably and lawfully recover the remaining values.

The key to resolving this complicated issue has remained concealed until the current stimulus package emerged from Congress. On Feb. 13, however, when the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act passed, it provided for $1.5 billion for abandoned mine cleanup on federal lands. According to at least one report, if the full total were spent on AML cleanup, it would translate into between 34,000 and 97,000 new jobs, something we all can applaud.

Today's mining industry does not need mining law reform. The mining law of 1872 is often pointed to as a relic, as if to imply that it hasn't been modified and amended many times, although it has. AML, however, has been a painful thorn in our side. Now, perhaps we can put that ancient curse behind us while forging a new image for a strong, healthy, vibrant industry for the new millennium.

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