Government doesn't know how much gold, silver, copper is being mined on federal lands: watchdog

Government doesn't know how much gold, silver, copper is being mined on federal lands: watchdog
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The federal government doesn’t know how much gold, silver and copper is being mined on public lands, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

The GAO, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog, found that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service do not keep track of how many minerals are extracted under “locatable hardrock mine operations” because companies that operate these mines do not need to pay royalties to the federal government. 

“Federal agencies do not generally collect data on the quantity of minerals extracted from locatable hardrock mine operations—which account for 83 percent of the total number of mine operations authorized to produce minerals on federal lands,” the GAO report said. 

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House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who requested the GAO probe, has been critical of an 1872 mining law that makes it so these operators do not need to pay royalties. 

“Mining on American public lands today means taking from the people without paying for it, polluting public property without cleaning up after yourself, and lobbying against any attempt to tell the public what you’re taking or what it’s worth,” the Arizona Democrat said in a statement on Thursday. 

“The free ride needs to end,” he added. “Let’s close these loopholes and start getting a fair return for the valuable resources mining corporations are taking from the American people.”

As of Sept. 30, 2018, there were 872 authorized mines on federal lands, 728 of which fell into the “locatable hardrock mineral” category.

A Forest Service spokesperson told The Hill in an email that it doesn't collect the information because the government doesn't collect royalties from this type of mining so "no federal requirements exist for us to gather these data."

And a BLM spokesperson told The Hill in an email that the development of mineral deposits on public lands "supports local economies and our national security, and provides important commodities essential for all American families."

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The spokesperson added that the government collected maintenance fees from mining claims amounting to $68 million in 2019.

The GAO report did list extraction quantities for other types of mines. It found that 290 million tons of coal, about 11.6 million tons of non-energy solid minerals like sodium and phosphate and 143,000 tons of gold, silver and copper for a separate type of mine were extracted from public lands in fiscal year 2018. In fiscal 2018, they paid about $550 million. 

Companies that operate locatable hardrock mines do not need to pay royalties to the federal government for minerals extracted from these types of mines.

Environmentalists have been critical of the practice of mining in general because they say the land disruption could cause health and environmental dangers.

This story was updated at 5:34 p.m. June 26.