Boston rebuilt swiftly, women gained the right to vote for president almost 90 years ago and wireless Internet now covers entire cities. But some things haven't changed. Companies that mine for metals can still claim federal land for five dollars or less per acre as they did in the 1870s, avoid paying any royalties, pollute the nation's waterways with mining waste, and walk away with little or no obligation to clean up. Thanks to the 135-year-old mining law, such practices can be perfectly legal - and are increasing. The time for reform has never been riper.
The late Rep. Morris Udall once called the arcane rules that govern gold, uranium and other metal mining a "fire sale without a fire." But a recent surge in new mining claims in the West, coupled with a change in the policy environment, may finally make it possible to end these antiquated and destructive practices.
Unlike oil, gas and other extractive industries operating on public land, the "hard rock" metal mining companies - even if foreign owned - can take mineral resources from U.S. lands virtually for free, costing American taxpayers an estimated $100 million each year in potential royalties.
That's just the beginning of the bonanza.
The law remains a speculator's dream. It allows individuals or corporations to ultimately buy the land they're claiming at prices set in 1872, which generally run from $2.50 to $5 per acre. Claims don't carry expiration dates and, if not mined, can be - and have been - used for development of everything from condominiums to casinos.
Even today, the law gives hard rock mining on public lands priority status, regardless of the impact on watersheds, wildlife or local communities.
Then there's the mess that is left behind. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has consistently found metal mining to be the nation's leading source of toxic pollution - and found the industry responsible for degrading 40 percent of Western watersheds. To add further insult to injury, mining is subject to deferential treatment under federal hazardous waste law and even the Clean Water Act.
Moreover, the industry too often skips out on the tab for cleanup. A 2004 report from the EPA's inspector general estimates that it could cost U.S. taxpayers up to $50 billion to clean up abandoned mine sites still scattered around the country. The damage includes cyanide contamination of thousands of miles of rivers, endless acid drainage and millions of cubic yards of toxic waste rock.
Claims for uranium, gold and other metals on public lands have increased almost 50 percent over the last four years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Many of these new claims - staked largely by foreign-owned companies - lie near such national treasures as the Grand Canyon, or next to highly populated urban areas and Indian lands.
It is perplexing that for so many years, a nation that treasures the majesty of its landscape, values the voice of its citizens and takes pride in protecting its taxpayers would allow such an unfair and destructive law to remain on the books.
The good news, however, comes from emerging signs that Congress may no longer be willing to tolerate this giveaway of public resources and such rampant environmental abuses. The new chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., has indicated that reform of the 1872 law is one of his highest priorities.
In fairness to taxpayers - and to the nation's future - lawmakers from both sides of the aisle should make sure that another year doesn't pass with a 21st-century mining industry being regulated by 19th-century laws. ---
Jane Danowitz directs the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining.