A small plane dodging wildfire smoke over Idaho's Rocky Mountains affords a view of an unnatural wonder few hikers ever see: Huge open pit mines.
Jim Kuipers, a former mining engineer-turned-industry critic, and Montana environmentalist Bonnie Gestring, offered a sky tour a week before a U.S. House subcommittee tackles a long-standing beef of American environmentalists. On Thursday, lawmakers will discuss a bill to dismantle the General Mining Act of 1872, signed by President Ulysses Grant to help develop the West's mineral deposits in the 19th century, but unchanged since.
Under the law, private companies haven't paid royalties to taxpayers for an estimated $245 billion worth of minerals extracted from public lands in the last 135 years. It also allows companies to buy public land for as little as $5 an acre.
The act elevates mining's importance above other uses of public land, making it difficult for agencies like the U.S. Forest Service to deny any mine applications, environmentalists say. Mining companies argue they comply with the existing federal law, as well as state regulations, and say many existing mines have set aside adequate bonds worth millions to cover responsible cleanup and reclamation once their operations are shuttered.
Industry problems, including abandoned mines that leak cyanide and heavy metals, make the timing right for change, critics say.
"What's needed is a comprehensive system of environmental standards and reclamation criteria, so our public lands are adequately protected," said Gestring, of the Missoula, Mont.-based Earthworks.
Reform efforts have gained momentum since Democrats won control of Congress last November. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-West Virginia and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is its sponsor and aims for a vote by December.
Sen. Reid a key player
The wild card, however, is U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader from Nevada. A gold miner's son, Reid waxes sentimental about his hardrock roots — and has stifled efforts to revamp the 1872 law before.
Mining is worth $5 billion yearly to Nevada and industry is wary. Reid got more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from mining interests between 2001 and 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Given these realities, most say Rahall's bill will be altered — if it's to become law.
"Unless it's a 'motherhood resolution,' where there's no debate, there's always a difference of opinion," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., a co-sponsor of Rahall's bill. "Anything that involves making changes — especially when there haven't been any changes since 1872 — is difficult by definition."
So this week, Kuipers and Gestring chartered a plane from a Colorado nonprofit, Ecoflight, to tour sites deep in Idaho's forested public lands they call "poster children" for why changes to the 1872 law are overdue.
From the passenger seat of the Cessna 210 over Idaho, Kuipers points toward 3 o'clock.
Bruce Gordon, the pilot, does a tight circle as the Stibnite Mine, an open-pit gold mine once run by Mobil Oil, emerges from the haze. Shuttered for a decade, groundwater here still has some of the highest concentrations of arsenic in the nation, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Thirty miles to the southeast, the Grouse Creek Mine is perched on a mountaintop industrial site. Coeur d'Alene, Idaho's Hecla Mining Co., is now investing $40 million into cleanup and says the effort will continue for years.
And above the 40-soul hamlet of Atlanta, Idaho, a Forest Service-owned hillside is etched with roads, tailings and shafts from mining since 1863. A Canadian company, Atlanta Gold Corp. of Toronto, wants to build a new $40 million, cyanide-leach mine to capitalize on gold prices hovering at $680 an ounce — more than double 2000 prices.
Water concerns in Boise
Boise, 100 miles to the west, gets a fifth of its drinking water from the Boise River that's fed by tributaries near the proposed Atlanta mine. Mayor Dave Bieter this year pushed a resolution opposing it.
"Unfortunately, the resolution was largely symbolic," Bieter said. Antiquated federal regulations don't consider the mines' potential damage to communities downstream, he said.
Rahall's changes would impose environmental requirements, give more rejection power to federal land managers and assess an 8 percent royalty to pay for cleaning up abandoned mines.
Mining companies are leery of Rahall's plan, dubbing it unofficially "The No-More Mining Act of 2007." Some changes in the 1872 law are needed, they say, but an 8 percent royalty would drive the U.S. industry to financial ruin.
"We have to be cost competitive," said Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association in Washington, D.C. "We want to pay more to the government. But sooner or later, you have to ask, 'Have we come to a tipping point when it's no longer feasible to mine in this country?' "
Atlanta Gold officials didn't immediately return phone calls.
But Hecla Mining's Chief Executive Officer Phillips Baker said many mining companies have acted responsibly under the existing law.
"We've spent about $40 million in closure costs and reclamation (at Grouse Creek)," Baker said. "Within Idaho, since 1969, there has not been a company that has started a mine and closed it where taxpayer money has been required. I would say we've had an extremely effective system of monitoring and regulating the opening and closing of mines in the state of Idaho."
Environmentalists counter that money paid by companies to remediate mining pollution on public land won't be enough to cover future catastrophes, in Idaho or elsewhere. They point to cleanups in states including Montana, where estimated remediation costs at an open-pit complex near Ft. Belknap exceed the company's bonds by $33 million.
The West has changed, they say; so should the 1872 mining law.
"The 1872 mining law was written to help promote the development of the West," said John Robison, of the Idaho Conservation League that's fighting the Atlanta mine. "As you can see, the West has already been developed."