updated 5/11/2004 6:50:07 PM ET 2004-05-11T22:50:07

Companies in Canada and seven other foreign countries have obtained hardrock mining rights on one-fifth of all current and former public lands in the United States, an environmental group’s analysis said.

Some 28,000 companies and individuals paid less than $5 an acre to patent land with precious metals and minerals under terms of the 1872 Mining Law, the Environmental Working Group said, citing figures from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management.

Those claims account for 5.6 million acres of public lands, the group reported Monday on a Web site in a study titled “Who Owns the West?”

But, it said, just 94 companies — 82 from Canada, three each from Australia and Britain, two from Mexico and one each from Barbados, Germany, Japan and Russia — control those rights on 1.2 million acres.

The site provides public access to federal information on hardrock minerals such as gold, silver and copper, and is organized by state and county.

An analyst for the group, Dusty Horwitt, said the aim was to highlight the need to change the 132-year-old law. Environmentalists have long criticized the act, saying it gives public resources to private companies for a small fraction of their real value.

Six foreign companies on top-10 list
The federal data shows that six of the top eight claimants are foreign-owned companies; the other two are based in Denver and Phoenix. Two people from Utah and Nevada, each with nearly 50,000 acres, round out the top 10.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees mining activity, including claims and patents on public lands. Since 1994, Congress has barred new patent applications on public lands but let older, “grandfathered” patents continue.

“We comply with the law of the land, and it’s important to remember that these companies provide high-paying jobs for rural communities throughout the West,” said Celia Boddington, a spokeswoman for the BLM, which oversees 261 million acres.

Video: Government land fleece Some of the companies and people got the mineral rights by patenting public land, effectively buying it and making it private. Others have active claims on public lands, still regulated by the BLM.

The federal government does not collect royalties from hardrock mining on either patented or public lands.

The Bush administration in October 2001 reversed some Clinton-era mining regulations. It eliminated the government’s authority to tell miners they cannot dig on public land where they have staked claims, but it kept a requirement that mining operators post bonds to assure they will clean up after themselves.

Three environmental groups challenged those regulations in November 2001. A federal judge ruled last November that the Interior Department has not been requiring companies to pay fair market value for the use of public lands and resources.

U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. ordered the administration to revisit some of its mining rules for hardrock minerals to ensure they are in keeping with Congress’ wish that the government receive fair market value when public lands and resources are used.

The National Mining Association, however, says the West’s mining economy is hindered by a permit process that typically takes between four and eight years. As a result, it says, other countries often attract new investment despite abundant U.S. mineral resources.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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