Laissez-faire legacy

Two local stories in the past week demonstrate the need to toss out the Mining Act of 1872 and replace it with a law that protects public lands from being damaged and then cleaned up at public expense.

The first was last Wednesday's report that the U.S. Forest Service wants to ban new gold mining claims on the Chetco River while Congress considers permanently raising the level of protection for salmon and steelhead habitat.

Gold miners, lured by skyrocketing prices for the precious metal, are taking full advantage of a law that long ago outlived its purpose.

Congress' intent in 1872 was to encourage people to settle the western frontier by offering them mining claims for pennies that later could be converted to private property.

The frontier hasn't existed in living memory, but the law lives on. Gold miners can stake a claim on public lands, scoop gravel from the beds of rivers and keep whatever gold they extract for themselves without paying royalties to the public.

Seattle real estate developer Dave Rutan has purchased claims on the Chetco. The proposed ban on new claims would not affect him, but would force him to prove there is enough gold to be extracted before developing his claims.

The second story, in Sunday's newspaper, describes the effort under way to clean up more than 100 years of toxic drainage from the Blue Ledge copper mine high in the Siskiyou Mountains.

The Blue Ledge hasn't been worked in years, but the legacy of unregulated mining methods continues to send toxic discharge into nearby streams and has left a lifeless scar down the steep mountainside below the 700-acre mine.

Not only did the Mining Act of 1872 encourage such destruction, it did so without requiring royalty payments to the public treasury in return for the resources extracted from public land. The Blue Ledge property is patented, meaning those who mined it essentially converted it to private property through a legal process.

A company that owned the Tacoma, Wash. smelter that received thousands of tons of ore from Blue Ledge is contributing $1.3 million toward the cleanup operation, but $11.3 million is coming from federal stimulus funds — in other words, tax dollars.

The government is not completely without legal authority over mining sites. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has jurisdiction over environmental pollution on private land. But the taxpayer ends up footing the bill for cleanup.

Suction dredging and tunneling after copper are very different mining operations with different environmental consequences. But the effects of both are thanks to Congress' inability to address an antiquated law that should have been updated many years ago.

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