MINING: Advocates lobby for uranium reform bill
Proposed royalty on uranium mining on federal lands.
E&E | Manuel Quinones
June 1, 2011
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Supporters of overhauling U.S. hardrock mining laws are pinning their hopes on legislation that would impose for the first time a royalty on uranium produced on federal lands.
Their move comes amid a resurgence in uranium mining to fuel the expected demand for nuclear power, particularly in China.
Advocates and a group of residents from New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming familiar with the dirty legacy of uranium mining have been making the rounds on Capitol Hill, hoping to muster support and nudge lawmakers into co-sponsoring legislation introduced last month by New Mexico Democratic Reps. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján.
Hardrock mining companies do not pay royalties for minerals they take from public lands, and they access the resources through a claim rather than competitive lease system. The Heinrich-Luján bill (H.R. 1452) would impose a 12.5 percent royalty on uranium. It also would set up a competitive leasing system for uranium mining on federal land, much like coal mining in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.
"We're focusing on the folks who have supported these type of issues in the past," Lauren Pagel, policy director for the group Earthworks, said in an interview about the lobbying efforts. "I think this could push the issue to the forefront."
Apart from visits to lawmaker offices, advocates hosted an evening reception with reporters and staffers last week. While the climate for mining reform has been cool in recent years (E&E Daily, March 16), Pagel and other like-minded boosters hope the bill's narrower scope and its focus on uranium provide some momentum.
"The uranium mining industry is the only energy fuel that doesn't take a royalty from what it takes from public lands," Pagel said. "This is a pretty common sense reform in our view."
Compared to other hardrock mining -- gold, silver and copper, for example -- uranium has left a particularly dirty legacy, especially in the Southwest, the advocates have emphasized in their meetings with legislative staffers.
"We have a lot of abandoned uranium mines and our communities keep living with contamination," Nadine Padilla, a resident of Bluewater Lake, N.M., said in an interview. "We have piles of radioactive wast in our backyards."
The industry does not dispute problems left by previous uranium mining, but leaders say current rules address problems that were unregulated during the beginning of the Cold War, when the federal government bought uranium for nuclear weapons. They say the United States, which relies on imports to help fuel its nuclear plants, should encourage domestic uranium mining.
Conservation advocates, however, say current hardrock mining rules do not do enough to address environmental concerns. And they find it particularly egregious that hardrock mining companies get preference over other public land uses. The current system is a major obstacle for environmentalists hoping to stop mining efforts on public land and, they say, an economic loss for taxpayers.
But even with the focus on uranium, advocates like Pagel are skeptical of significant action, especially in the Republican-controlled House. "I think that given the politics of this Congress, I am not sure how likely it is," she said.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was a key voice in crafting a failed hardrock mining compromise in 2009. In a recent interview, he expressed skepticism about reform chances during this Congress, and it remains unclear whether he will push for the more-targeted Heinrich-Luján bill in the upper chamber.
Advocates are also focusing on lawmakers like Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who are familiar with uranium mining issues and are pushing for legislation to increase and expand payouts for people affected by radiation from uranium mining and atomic weapons tests (E&E Daily, April 14).
"I feel really hopeful. The staff people that we have met with, they seem to have an understanding of the problem," Padilla said. "Yeah, it's definitely a lot of walking. But it's an important message that we have."
There may be a great deal more walking through the halls of Congress before lawmakers approve any hardrock mining reform. A broader budget proposal by President Obama to impose a royalty and a lease system on hardrock mining has largely fallen on deaf ears. The mining industry and its supporters on Capitol Hill -- including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who hails from a major gold mining state -- say they are OK with reform as long as it does not punish mining