Mining laws should accomodate community wishes

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By Sherry Robinson

Green jobs get most of the attention these days, but lately there’s news from an old and not-so-green industry, mining. Here, we have good news, bad news, and no news.

Good news: Lea County will get its first new potash mine in four decades, Santa Fe Gold Corp. will begin processing ore near Lordsburg, and reclamation will begin soon at abandoned coal mines near Raton.

Bad news: With an Appeals Court decision in its favor, Hydro Resources is closer to mining uranium in the Church Rock area, and the state Mining and Minerals Division issued a permit for exploratory drilling for bertrandite in Red Paint Canyon near Monticello.

My determination of good or bad here depends entirely on whether the people of the area want these developments. The Hydro Resources people may be fine folks who call their mothers at least once a week and offer an enlightened plan of operation. But uranium mining in Navajo country must overcome some ugly history, and thanks to BP, the public is even less trusting of energy companies.

In the case of Red Paint Canyon, if ever a case existed for government to protect the public, this is it. The small community of Monticello and its farmers and ranchers depend entirely on a spring that feeds Alamosa Creek. Nobody can say how five holes, 5 to 10 inches wide and up to 1,000 feet deep, will affect this water resource or the environment. Red Paint Canyon is sacred to the Mescalero Apaches (as they have testified). And the applicants’ track record is poor. Even if the project is successful, it will create no jobs and no industry but could destroy Monticello’s existing economy.

Imagine depending on one water source for your livelihood and the state telling you it will monitor the drilling. Feel better?

If life were fair, community sentiment would be a factor in the approval process. But it isn’t – not at the state or federal levels.

Which brings us to no news: Efforts to reform the Mining Law of 1872. Congress and environmentalists have tried for decades to drive a stake into its heart, and, by golly, it’s still with us. That’s a sign it’s either working or protected by an ancient curse.

When President Ulysses S. Grant signed the law, the government was trying to encourage settlement in the Wild West. Ever since, any U.S. citizen can explore public lands for hard-rock minerals and, with reasonable expectations of developing a mine, stake a claim. If the miner demonstrates a store of minerals that can be mined profitably, the government will grant a patent (ownership) to the claim. Miners pay no royalties.

Environmentalists have blasted the law as an anachronism that gives away public lands and despoils the earth without returning a dime to public coffers. The mining industry says it’s a productive statute and not the giveaway it appears to be. An individual (yes, the lone prospector still exists) or a company will spend a fortune to define the ore body and defend its value to the government. Abandoned mines, like those near Raton, are largely relics of the bad old days. Modern environmental laws generally see that the companies clean up after themselves and restore the land.

However, the process is entirely between the miner and the federal government, as Lincoln County learned in 2008 when it attempted to challenge a proposed gold mine in the Capitan Mountains. The county’s Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution asking for “a modern mining law that allows local communities and county governments to make a difference in the decision-making process.”

Sen. Jeff Bingaman introduced a reform bill last year to address this and other concerns; like every other attempt, it sank beneath the waves. Bingaman tends to be like water dripping on sandstone. He may yet find a way.

© New Mexico News Services 2010