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Originally published September 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 27, 2007 at 7:31 PM

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Mining law may be overhauled to protect public lands

Senators from both parties are calling for the first major revision to a controversial mining law, which has remained largely unchanged...

The Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — Senators from both parties are calling for the first major revision to a controversial mining law, which has remained largely unchanged since it was written in 1872.

At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing Thursday, senators said they were open to charging the first-ever royalty fee to companies mining gold, copper and other minerals from public lands. Added environmental restrictions and other changes also might be in the works, they said.

"I think we can do something very positive for the country," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

It's change of heart from years past, when environmentalists struggled to get the Republicans and the Bush administration to consider rewriting the law. They say it has allowed companies to pollute rivers, scar the landscape and leave abandoned mines throughout the West.

But now that Democrats control Congress, even the mining industry says it is open to changes. On Thursday, the National Mining Association urged a bipartisan agreement that would create a predictable national mining policy.

Advocates for a rewrite say the 1872 law treats hard-rock mining companies differently from oil and gas producers. Among other things, the law doesn't require companies to pay a royalty fee or follow some environmental regulations.

The law, which was written to help settle the West, allows public lands to be sold for as little as $5 an acre, although Congress has annually prohibited that. It also elevates mining's importance above other uses of public land, making it difficult for federal agencies to deny mining applications.

Environmentalists say the law needs to be changed to reflect modern attitudes toward public lands — including the value of preserving open space for hiking, hunting and fishing.

The Senate isn't yet considering specific legislation. It's unclear whether it will follow the House's lead on a bill introduced by Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.

Rahall's bill proposed new environmental requirements on hard-rock mining. It would give federal land managers power to reject mining applications and assess an 8 percent royalty to pay for cleaning up abandoned mines.

The Bush administration opposes the House bill, arguing that it would hurt small Western communities that depend on mining.

Republican senators said Thursday that they would support legislation only if it is sensitive to the industry, which is healthy when commodity prices are high, and struggles when demand is low.

A change in the law "doesn't mean anything if there isn't an industry to apply it to," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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