Summary of Environmental Law in the United States
18.1 Institutions with Authority over Mining
The Department of
Interior (DOI), through the Bureau
of Land Management (BLM), has general authority over mining
activities and mineral resources on most U.S. lands. The Department
of Agriculture's U.S. Forest Service
(USFS) has authority to regulate mining activity on national
forest lands. See 36
C.F.R. sec. 228.15.
Service. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) is the
primary agency responsible for issuing mineral exploration and
development leases on federal lands, including leases for oil and
natural gas exploration and development.
Office of Surface Mining
Reclamation and Enforcement. Established within DOI by the
Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, 30 U.S.C.
secs. 1201-1328, the Office administers a national program to
minimize the adverse sound and environmental effects of coal mining
on public lands, to establish national standards for regulating the
environmental effects of surface coal mining, to support state
implementation of federal surface mining programs, and to promote
reclamation of previously mined areas.
U.S. Geological Survey
(USGS). Established in 1879, the USGS of the DOI researches,
publishes, and distributes maps and reports covering the country's
geophysical features, including its mineral, fuel, and water
resources. Responsibilities of the USGS include topographic mapping,
geology, water, energy, and mineral resources, and natural hazards.
The USGS has more than 300 field offices and two regional centers in
Denver, CO, and Menlo Park, CA.
Board of Land Appeals. DOI's Board of Land Appeals is
authorized to settle disputes over mining claims.
Individual states may enact distinct mining regulations and
create state agencies to regulate mining activity on both
state-owned and private lands. More stringent state regulation of
mining on federal lands is also allowed.
18.2 Exploration and Development of Mines
The General Mining Act of 1872 provides that all valuable mineral
deposits in lands belonging to the United States should be open to
exploration and purchase by U.S. citizens. 30 U.S.C. secs.
22-47. Other statutes that provide specific permitting
requirements for exploration, establishment, development, and
operation of mines in the United States are contained in Title 30 of
the U.S. Code. Section 617 of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) is
designed to encourage mineral exploration by allowing a deduction
from nacec.taxable income of certain mining exploration and
development costs (oil, gas, and geothermal wells are excluded). 26 U.S.C. sec.
Percentage Depletion. Section 613 of the IRC allows an
independent producer to utilize "percentage depletion," deducting a
flat percentage, on gross income from nacec.certain oil and gas
wells, geothermal deposits, geopressured natural gas, specified coal
and metal mines, non-metal mines and natural mineral deposits. 26 U.S.C. sec.
C.F.R. sec. 1.611-0. Highest deductions are allowed for minerals
such as lead, mercury, and uranium, all of which can be hazardous to
human health, wildlife, and the environment. 26 U.S.C. sec. 613
(b)(1). By stimulating production, the percentage depletion
allowance favors the use of virgin materials and depresses the
market for recycled products.
Expensing of Mining Exploration and Development Costs.
Section 617 of the IRC allows for deduction from nacec.taxable
income of certain mining exploration and development costs (oil,
gas, and geothermal wells are excluded). 26 U.S.C. sec. 617; 26
C.F.R. sec. 1.611-0. Standard accounting procedures would amortize
these costs over the life of the project through depreciation. This
provision creates an incentive to explore for minerals, with the
risk being underwritten by the taxpayer.
18.3 Regulation of Mining Wastes
Mining wastes are generally covered by other environmental
statutes, if they fall within the general requirements of those
statutes. Thus, for example, many mining wastes contain "hazardous
substances," and their release triggers the cleanup and liability
provisions of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation
and Liability Act, described in Section
13. Discharges of mining wastes may also require a permit under
the Clean Water Act, described in Section
In addition, several statutes are particularly tailored to mining
wastes. The Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978,
Pub. L. No. 95-604, 92 Stat. 3021 (codified in scattered sections of
42 U.S.C.), is designed to provide for the stabilization, disposal,
and control of radioactive uranium mill tailings located at mill
operations. The statute provides for the assessment and remediation
of mill tailings sites, and the regulation of mill tailings during
processing at active mill operations. See Section 12.3: Radioactive
Wastes. The Anthracite Mine Water Control Act, 30 U.S.C.
secs. 571-576, regulates the drainage of water from
nacec.anthracite coal formations and mines. The Act finances water
control at existing and abandoned mines. The Materials
Disposal Act of 1947, 30 U.S.C. secs. 601-604, and the Surface
Resources Act of 1955, 30 U.S.C. secs. 601, 603, 611-613,
govern the disposal and removal of certain mineral waste materials.
18.4 Reclamation of Mines
Except for surface coal mines covered under the federal Surface
Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), mining reclamation is
not generally regulated under federal statute. State laws, however,
can impose state reclamation requirements on any mining activities
in the state.
Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. SMCRA, 30
U.S.C. secs.1201-1328, was designed to prevent and repair
environmental damage from coal strip mining. Any person intending to
surface mine for coal must obtain a permit issued by the state under
an approved state plan or by the federal government if there is no
approved state plan. To receive a permit, the applicant must submit
a detailed reclamation plan, demonstrate that the company has
sufficient liability insurance to cover potential injuries and
damage caused by the mining operations, and post an assurance bond
to cover the costs of the reclamation plan. 30 U.S.C.
secs. 1256-1259; 30 C.F.R. pts. 777-780. The permittee also must
meet certain environmental performance standards. 30 U.S.C. sec.
1265; 30 C.F.R. pts. 715, 816.
SMCRA provides for a range of enforcement and implementation powers,
including: inspection and monitoring, 30 U.S.C. sec.
1267; civil penalties of up to US$5000 per violation, 30 U.S.C. sec.
1268; criminal fines of up to US$10,000 and one year
imprisonment for willful violations or false statements, 30 U.S.C.
sec. 1268; 30 C.F.R.
pt. 723; additional fines of at least US$750 per day for failing
to correct violations after notice, 30 U.S.C. sec. 1268; 30 C.F.R.
pt. 723; citizen enforcement,30 U.S.C. sec.
1270; and detailed government enforcement provisions, 30 U.S.C. sec.
Reclamation Fees and Fund. All operators of coal mines
must pay a reclamation fee, which ranges from nacec.10 cents to 35
cents per ton depending on the type of coal and whether it is
surface mined or mined from nacec.underground. 30 U.S.C. sec.
1232(a). Proceeds from nacec.the reclamation fees are used
mostly for reclamation and restoration of land and water resources
adversely affected by past coal mining. 30 U.S.C. sec.
State Reclamation Laws. SMCRA leaves most enforcement and
implementation powers in the hands of those states that submit
approved plans. State laws can also impose their own reclamation
requirements on any mining activities in the state, including
private and state lands not covered by SMCRA.
18.5 Mining Rights on Public Lands
Under federal law, private persons can gain the right to mine on
public lands by locating a claim or by leasing or purchasing mineral
Locating a Claim. Under the General Mining Act of 1872, 30 U.S.C. secs.
22-47, any person may enter public lands, locate a claim, and
obtain title to remove all similar minerals throughout the claim.
The person can also obtain a "patent" to the land, which allows
transfer of title to the land from nacec.public to private
ownership. This process applies primarily to hard rock minerals,
gold, and gems, and does not apply to peat, coal, oil, gas, or
common materials, such as gravel or sand. Miners are not charged a
fee for access to hard rock minerals on federal lands, even though
in 1990 the value of such minerals extracted from nacec.public lands
approached US$1.2 billion.
Leasing Mineral Rights. Under the Mineral Lands Leasing
Act of 1920, ch. 85, 41 Stat. 437 (codified as amended in scattered
sections of 30 U.S.C.), a person can gain the right to explore and
mine certain specific minerals. This process applies to some
minerals, such as potassium, sodium, phosphates, and sulfates, and
to most energy resources, such as coal, oil and gas, oil shale, and
geothermal resources. See 30 U.S.C.
secs. 201-287. Regulations vary according to the statutory and
leasing system, but most include environmental conditions and
require payment of rents and royalties to the government. See
Section 21: Energy.
Surface coal mining is not allowed in many areas determined to be
unsuitable, including national parks, wildlife refuges, wilderness
areas, recreation areas, wild and scenic rivers, and most national
forest lands. 30 U.S.C. sec.
Purchasing Mineral Rights. Certain commonly occurring
materials such as clay, gravel, or sand can be purchased from public
lands. Materials Disposal Act of 1947, 30 U.S.C.
secs. 601-604; Surface Resources Act, 30 U.S.C. sec.
18.A Legal Instruments
Mine Water Control Act, 30 U.S.C. secs. 571-576
Mining Act of 1872, 30 U.S.C. secs. 22-47
Disposal Act of 1947, 30 U.S.C. secs. 601-604
Lands Leasing Act of 1920, 41 Stat. 437 (codified as amended in
scattered sections of 30 U.S.C. 181-287)
in Parks Act of 1976, 16 U.S.C. secs. 1901-1912
Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, 30 U.S.C. 1201-1328
Surface Resources Act of 1955, 30 U.S.C. secs. 601, 603, and
Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act, 42 U.S.C. secs. 7901-7942