WASHINGTON — A House committee considering some of the most sweeping changes to the nation's 135-year-old law governing mining on public lands was warned Thursday that Senate leaders aren't interested in its proposal.
That hasn't stopped House Democrats from proposing an overhaul of the mining law, a move that has firm support from environmentalists, who say it would give people more say in where new mines are sited.
"People say the West has changed. ... It's time to change the 1872 mining law," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., who heads the House Natural Resources subcommittee on energy and mineral resources.
The law elevates mining's significance above other use of public land, which makes it difficult for federal land management agencies to turn down applications for new mining projects.
But opponents of changing the mining law have a firm ally in Senate Majority Harry Reid, a gold miner's son. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said Thursday that he had spoken with Reid and that the Nevada Democrat was unlikely to even consider giving the proposed changes a hearing in the Senate.
Some of the proposed changes would make it easier for the government to deny mining applications. Other suggested changes include forcing mining companies to put up substantially more money to ensure that if there is environmental fallout from their work, there's a cleanup fund to tap into.
The proposed changes also include allowing the federal government to recoup royalties off mining operations, much like oil and gas exploration.
"The people of the United States deserve to receive a payment in return for the disposition of the resources we all own," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the full House Natural Resources Committee and the sponsor of the legislation. "Nobody in their right mind would allow timber, oil, gas, coal or copper to be cut, drilled for or mined on lands they own without some reimbursement. And neither should the United States."
But western political leaders told Rahall and the other committee members that the economies in many western states are heavily dependent on mining, and that too many restrictions would make it too expensive for investors to consider those states.
Idahoans with mining jobs make an average of $44,000 each year — much higher than the state's average annual wages of $30,000, Craig told the House committee.
"It will only serve to further regulate one of the most regulated industries in the land," said Rep. Bill Sali, R-Idaho.
J.P. Tangen, a former Interior Department lawyer who represents the Alaska Miners Association, called the legislation "anti-Alaska. Because a large percentage of the vacant and unappropriated public land in the United States is in Alaska."