Old Mining Law Gives Taxpayers the Shaft

Under an 1872 mining law, private companies and individuals have laid claim to 9.2 million acres of public land for mining, often at prices of $5 an acre or less, says a new report — and 1.2 million acres of that is controlled by foreign companies. The 132-year-old General Mining Law was passed to encourage settlement of the American West, a goal most observers agree has been fairly well accomplished, but unlike the Homestead Act, which had a similar aim, it has never been repealed. The law states that the right to extract minerals from public land belongs to “citizens of the United States and those who have declared their intention to become such”; combined with an 1898 Supreme Court ruling that gave corporations legal status as persons, it effectively opened public land for corporate use at fire-sale prices. Furthermore, mining operations on public lands often leave behind huge amounts of toxic waste and stick taxpayers with cleanup bills that can run to hundreds of millions of dollars. A year-long analysis by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group has exposed what is, in effect, a massive taxpayer subsidy of mining companies.