Mining reform: dead or alive?

  As Congress prepares to adjourn for the year, chances that it will pass legislation reforming the 1872 Mining Law grow slimmer by the day. Sen. Harry Reid, D, who emerged as a key negotiator for the Western Democrats, says the Senate would have approved a draft put forth by a House-Senate conference committee in early August, but subsequent changes, including an increase in the royalty rate, made it unpalatable. Hard-rock mining companies now pay the federal government no royalty for the minerals they extract from public lands. "It's dead," says Reid. Environmentalists say the negotiations aren't over and claim Reid is doing the bidding of the mining industry, which has changed its position from wanting a moderate reform bill to wanting to kill any bill. "Reid took the last offer back to the big gold companies in Nevada, and he got hammered," says Jim Lyon, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Mineral Policy Center. "He caved in to them." Some observors say the "94 elections may be the biggest obstacle to passing mining reform: Western Democrats, including Sen. Richard Bryan and Gov. Bob Miller, both democrats from Nevada, don't want to give Republicans more reason to crow "War on the West" between now and November. Meanwhile, the conference committee agreed to a one-year moratorium on patenting new mining claims. The Mineral Policy Center says the measure is a "fig leaf" because it grandfathers in 399 pending sale applications worth $21 billion.