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Harry Reid Puts Mining Reform in a Deep Hole

On June 17, the generally conservative commissioners of Lincoln County, New Mexico, terrified by the prospect of a big gold mining operation in the nearby Capitan Mountains, asked the Senate to amend the 1872 mining law to give local officials some say in the matter. Two days later, Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona urged the secretary of the interior to take emergency measures to protect lands adjacent to the Grand Canyon from uranium mining. And the day after that, three Western governors added their voices to the reform chorus.

Enticed by soaring prices in recent years for gold, silver, copper and uranium, mining companies have been filing claims at a record clip. But the General Mining Law of 1872, which governs them, is as flimsy as ever.

A relic of the boisterous era of Western expansion, the law gives hard-rock mining precedence over all other uses of the public lands, including conservation. It demands no royalties and provides minimal environmental protections. Its legacy, if it can be called that, is a battered landscape of abandoned mines and poisoned streams.

Recent rumblings suggest that mining law reform may be moving from the list of legislative lost causes to reality. Last fall, the House passed a good bill that would require companies to pay royalties, just as oil and coal producers do, strengthen environmental safeguards, give local officials a role in decision-making and allow the interior secretary to veto mines that threaten irreparable harm to the environment.

This leaves matters in the lap of the Senate, where the majority leader, Harry Reid, controls the agenda. Mr. Reid is a miner's son whose home state of Nevada depends heavily on mining, and it is hard to overstate his lack of enthusiasm for serious reform.

At the same time, his colleagues have not been putting much pressure on him. Senator Jeff Bingaman's Energy and Natural Resources Committee has held hearings, and Mr. Bingaman himself strongly favors reform. What Mr. Bingaman needs to do now is draw up an actual bill, get it approved in committee and ask Mr. Reid to schedule a vote.

That could break the logjam and change a law that has remain unchanged, for the worse, for 136 years.