The same old Sen. Reid?

The Nevada lawmaker has a long history of opposing attempts to reform an antiquated federal mining law

  • Jim Day, Las Vegas Review-Journal

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid "is a son-of-a-bitch," a professional environmentalist in Washington, D.C., griped last week.

It's an epithet that fits many denizens of Congress, especially those who walk over people while climbing to power. Reid, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, has that kind of toughness, honed by childhood poverty and his father's suicide.

Even Reid's constituents tend to see him that way. He's represented Nevada in the Senate for 22 years, and in the House for four years before that. Yet a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll in June found that only 34 percent of Nevadans have a favorable opinion of him, while 46 percent "viewed him unfavorably."

When an environmentalist criticizes Reid, though, it might seem out of line. Reid has voted green on at least 75 percent of the key environmental bills over the last 10 years, according to the League of Conservation Voters.

But sometimes the senator takes spectacularly anti-green positions. He's the political architect of a proposed 6-foot-diameter, 300-mile-long pipeline that would suck up rural groundwater for Las Vegas' use, for instance. Most egregiously, he's the bulwark protecting the decrepit General Mining Act of 1872.

That law, a relic of the gold-rush era, lets hardrock miners extract a billion dollars' worth of gold, copper and other minerals from federal land each year without paying any royalties to the federal government. It also encourages environmentally risky mining proposals, despite the history of mines polluting streams with toxic heavy metals.

Reid has mining in his blood as well as his politics. His father was a gold miner and he grew up in a mining town. Gold mines are a huge power in Nevada, responsible for 80 percent of the nation's gold production. The mining companies shovel money into his campaigns, and he always hopes for votes in mining towns.

It's a D.C. ritual: Year after year, environmentalists try to reform the mining law and year after year, Reid blocks them. In the last session of Congress, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would have imposed royalties and used some of the revenue to clean up pollution. The bill was never even introduced in the chamber that Reid runs, because the other senators knew it was useless and didn't want to incur his wrath.

In the current session, Sen. Jeff Bingaman -- a fellow Democrat from New Mexico -- has dared to try. He's sponsoring a bill that's vague and loopholed but better than nothing. It would impose royalties only on new mines, somewhere between 2 percent and 5 percent of the value of their production, while allowing the companies to deduct transportation and processing costs. It would also impose a special fee (up to 1 percent) to raise money for mine reclamation. And -- this is crucial -- it would establish more ways for environmentalists, agencies and local governments to prevent mining in sensitive areas.

Meanwhile, the perennial champion for reform, West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall, D, is pushing a tougher bill: 8 percent royalty on new mines, 4 percent on existing mines, and new environmental protections. Both bills would end patenting (privatization) of federal land by miners, which has been stymied temporarily by moratoriums Congress passed each year since 1994.

The Obama administration backs the reformers. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testified in a July 14 hearing on Bingaman's bill: "We are committed to devoting significant resources … to get this done." Reform would immediately help Westerners who are battling unpopular mining proposals near Tucson, Ariz., and Crested Butte, Colo.

But Reid probably isn't going away. Running for re-election next year, he's setting a new record for campaign money, on track to hit $25 million (more than triple the budget for his last campaign). And in May, as the Nevada Legislature tried to raise the state's puny mine tax (an effective rate of less than 1 percent), Reid worked behind the scenes to prevent that reform.

Reid's chamber will decide the Westwide issue once again. Bingaman's bill is like a little flame on a wooden match, vulnerable to any wind that could snuff it out. We'll see whether Reid blows as hard as usual.

Anonymous says:
Aug 04, 2009 08:44 PM
I do not have a problem with Harry representing a perceived important part of his constituents. Not all of Nevada's voters deal cards. So he does not represent me. Bingaman actually does. So what? Being in a democracy or republic, as we are, means the tyranny of the majority usually wins. Especially when the rich and powerful elite is behind it. I do grasp reality. Whine, whine.
Anonymous says:
Aug 05, 2009 09:26 AM
In many areas Harry has been surprizing a very good leader for green issue's. He even delivered the states electorial vote's to help win a greener president. The 1872 Mining act is a royal pain in the butt for so many reason's... Harry the nation need's the tax revenue that could be raised from hard rock mining.
Call it what you want: > Maybe create a fund for the royalty dollars to fund intermountain lands for conservation, mirroring the off shore oil lease's Land -Conservation fund.
As well this industry needs to be regulated under a new best 21 century practice's regulation's. Hello Harry !! wake-up and smell the dust of opportunity to make a big mark in conservation history.
Anonymous says:
Aug 05, 2009 10:52 AM
I hope the potential for mining reform finally emboldens the big conservation groups to buck Reid and support Bingaman's (and better yet,Rahall's)efforts. Reid has gotten a pass for too long for repeatedly "saving" the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for example, and has been allowed to carry a false reputation for greenness. His LCV scorecards don't look at the massively damaging legislation he has gotten passed to privatize hundreds of thousands of acres of public land for Las Vegas sprawl and the pipeline you mention (it's actually 448 miles long). Between these actions and his thralldom to hardrock mining, it's time he got pinned with the low score he has earned.
Anonymous says:
Aug 05, 2009 09:54 AM
Unfortunately, when you say "the majority usually wins" and follow up with "the rich and powerful elite" behind it, it means that the minority with the majority of the money usually wins. And none of this will change until real campaign finance reform is enacted. Lobbying with money instead of ideas is the bane of good government.
Anonymous says:
Aug 09, 2009 04:32 PM
We want to thank you for noting in your article, "The Same Old Sen. Reid?" that reform of the 1872 mining law would help us here in Tucson, Arizona, where we are indeed battling a very unpopular mining proposal.

The negative impacts to southeastern Arizona from a proposed open-pit copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains are huge: lowering our already limited ground water; very likely putting toxics into protected riparian areas; putting heavy trucks (some carrying toxics) on a narrow, scenic two-lane road; threatening the tourist-based economies of the charming, small towns nearby.

Local communities NEED to have ways to prevent mining in sensitive areas such as the Santa Ritas. We are hoping that Senator Reid will recognize that the old ways of mining are like using DDT. It was once thought to be a good idea, but is now known to be a huge environmental threat. We NEED an updated mining law that reflects our modern understanding of the importance of environmental protection.
Anonymous says:
Aug 11, 2009 02:02 PM
Readers should know that the legislation which authorized the pipeline to drain rural Nevada groundwater and pump it to Las Vegas included a title which created a new wilderness area near Las Vegas. No doubt that place deserved wilderness designation. But including it in a bill with the pipeline, persuaded The Sierra Club and other members of the environmental establishment to support the wilderness title and remain quiet on the other provisions - including the pipeline. Essentially they chose to look the other way.

This sort of deal making is not good environmental politics and a big part of what is wrong with the environmental establishment. In my view it is also a consequence of being too close to the Democratic Party.
Anonymous says:
Aug 13, 2009 08:48 PM
Felice Pace's comment about the Environmental Establishment 'looking the other way' on the pipe line, is not uncommon. And, that is too bad.In the 1990's I left the Democratic Party because of such blatant hypocrisy. However, 'W' sent me back.
Anonymous says:
Aug 23, 2009 01:44 AM
I have a question and a comment about patenting mining claims and what ever happened to the homestead act. Why we can't patent our mining claim? Revolutions are started for much less than the government taking our land away from us. When the whole senseless inflated artificial economy collapses, the people who have land will survive because they can grow their own food and not be dependent on the "big machine." And what happened to the homestead act? Decent people who want to end their dependence on "big machine" politics of war and violence, can no longer get cheap or free land. And what are the reasons, except that "big brother" wants to close all the loopholes to enslaving everyone! Just because dispersed properties are a burden to the forestry fire protection departments, that doesn't mean that we can't have land anymore. Just don't promise to protect people from forest fires. Make them do the needful to protect their own properties. But don't take away their land!