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Hardrock Mining on Federal Lands

Thousands of mining operators have extracted billions of dollars worth of hardrock mineral from land now managed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) without being required to pay a federal royalty. In addition, some operators have abandoned hardrock mining sites and did not reclaim BLM land disturbed by their exploration, mining, and mineral processing operations.

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The General Mining Act of 1872 helped open the West by allowing individuals to obtain exclusive rights to mine billions of dollars worth of hardrock minerals, including gold, silver, copper, uranium, and other valuable mineral deposits on land belonging to the United States without having to pay a federal royalty. Additional revenues could be generated by amending the General Mining Act of 1872 so that the federal government could collect federal royalties on minerals extracted from federal lands.

Regarding mine reclamation, BLM issued regulations effective in 1981 requiring all operators of hardrock mines to reclaim the land disturbed by mining when operations cease. BLM amended the regulations in 2001 to require all mining operations to provide bonds or other financial assurances before beginning exploration or mining operations on BLM land. Prior to these regulatory changes, some operators left BLM with many thousands of acres of unreclaimed land, some of which posed environmental and health and safety risks. Having adequate financial assurances to pay reclamation costs for BLM land disturbed by hardrock operations is critical to ensuring that the land is reclaimed if the mining operators fail to do so.

Figure 1: Examples of Cleanup Activities That Could Take Place at Abandoned Uranium Mine Sites

Examples of Cleanup Activities, Figure 3, GAO-12-544

Note: This figure is illustrative and does not include all possible activities that may take place based on site-specific conditions.

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Uranium Mining:

Opportunities Exist to Improve Oversight of Financial Assurances
GAO-12-544:
Published: May 17, 2012. Publicly Released: May 24, 2012.

Phosphate Mining:

Oversight Has Strengthened, but Financial Assurances and Coordination Still Need Improvement
GAO-12-505:
Published: May 4, 2012. Publicly Released: Jun 4, 2012.

Hardrock Mining:

BLM Needs to Revise Its Systems for Assessing the Adequacy of Financial Assurances
GAO-12-189R:
Published: Dec 12, 2011. Publicly Released: Dec 22, 2011.

Department of the Interior:

Major Management Challenges
GAO-11-424T:
Published: Mar 1, 2011. Publicly Released: Mar 1, 2011.

Hardrock Mining:

Information on State Royalties and Trends in Mineral Imports and Exports
GAO-08-849R:
Published: Jul 21, 2008. Publicly Released: Aug 20, 2008.

More Reports

Mine Safety:

Hazardous Waste Cleanup:

Observations on States' Role, Liabilities at DOD and Hardrock Mining Sites, and Litigation Issues
GAO-13-633T:
Published: May 22, 2013. Publicly Released: May 22, 2013.

Mine Safety:

Abandoned Mines:

Information on the Number of Hardrock Mines, Cost of Cleanup, and Value of Financial Assurances
GAO-11-834T:
Published: Jul 14, 2011. Publicly Released: Jul 14, 2011.

Surface Coal Mining:

Surface Coal Mining:

Financial Assurances for, and Long-Term Oversight of, Mines with Valley Fills in Four Appalachian States
GAO-10-206:
Published: Jan 14, 2010. Publicly Released: Feb 16, 2010.

Surface Coal Mining:

Characteristics of Mining in Mountainous Areas of Kentucky and West Virginia
GAO-10-21:
Published: Dec 9, 2009. Publicly Released: Dec 9, 2009.

Hardrock Mining:

Information on State Royalties and the Number of Abandoned Mine Sites and Hazards
GAO-09-854T:
Published: Jul 14, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 14, 2009.
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