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Update federal mining law.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The chief of the Environmental Protection Agency rightly accepted responsibility Tuesday for a massive spill of toxic mining waste that has turned the Animas River a sickening shade of mustard yellow.

Gina McCarthy had little choice but to do so after a crew working for the EPA accidentally breached a dam holding back water containing high levels of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals. The toxic water had collected the defunct Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo., that sits at an 11,000-foot elevation. As a result of the spill, a 3-million gallon plume is pushing down the Animas and San Juan rivers that cross Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

The agency deserves rigorous scrutiny in the wake of claims by state and local officials that the EPA's initial response was dangerously slow and inadequate. By some accounts, it took nearly 24 hours to notify some downriver communities that rely on the rivers for drinking water that they should shut off intake valves and use alternate water sources.

McCarthy has pledged a thorough review, and it's likely that congressional Republicans, who have long sought to roll back the EPA's funding and authority to enforce the nation's environmental laws, will conduct their own investigation. While they're at it, lawmakers should consider the thousands of abandoned mining sites in Oregon and other Western states. Long after the dam at the Gold King mine is plugged, acid- and metals-laden waters from many former mining sites will continue to pollute Western waterways.

The Government Accountability Office recently estimated there are more than 161,000 abandoned mines throughout the West. More than a fifth of them are sites with contaminated surface and groundwater, arsenic- laden piles of tailings and other pollution. In Oregon, a prime example is the Formosa mine on Silver Butte, at the headwaters of an Umpqua River tributary. Each year the abandoned copper mine spews 5 million gallons of water laced with toxic metals into nearby streams. The threat to humans and the environment is so significant that in 2007 the EPA added the mine to the Superfund list of toxic waste sites.

After federal lawmakers finish reviewing the Gold King incident, they should consider their own complicity in such disasters by failing to update the nation's 143-year-old federal mining law. The General Mining Act, signed into law by President Ulysses Grant, provides few environmental protections and allows hard-rock mining companies to remove billions of dollars of minerals from public lands without paying royalties needed to cover the $72 billion cost of cleaning up the nation's abandoned mine sites.

Last year, Rep. Peter DeFazio introduced a bill that would overhaul the law. The Oregon Democrat's proposal would require most existing mines to pay a 4 percent royalty, with proceeds going to a cleanup fund; new mining projects would pay an 8 percent royalty on gross revenues. DeFazio also wants to make permanent the current moratorium on patenting mining claims. (Under the law, federal land can be sold for $5 per acre, although 14 years ago Congress imposed a moratorium on such transactions.)

Federal lawmakers are justified in criticizing the EPA for its mistakes at the Gold King mine. But the Colorado disaster also points to the glaring need to turn the nation's 19th century mining law into one that meets the needs of the 21st century.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 12, 2015
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