Federal & State Mining Laws & Regulations

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There's a lot of money to be made in mining, but what are the costs on the environment? Let's take a look at how the federal and state governments have used the law to limit the impact of mining while keeping the industry alive.

Mining and the Law

When we imagine the '49ers, those intrepid aspiring miners who set off to participate in the California Gold Rush, we think of individuals alone in the wilderness, memorizing the land in search of the mother load. You know what we don't picture them doing? Paperwork. There's a reason for this; mining in 1849 (particularly in the territories) was almost entirely unregulated. The only law was finders-keepers (and sometimes robbers-keepers).

That's not what mining is like today. Today, mining is one of the most regulated industries in a country that historically disproves of industrial regulation. So, why do we put so much effort into telling people where and how they can remove mineral resources? It's because mining has major environmental implications. Mines can leave the surface scarred and unusable. They can release toxins from the earth into the air. Poisonous metals can sap into the soil, killing nearby farms and making water undrinkable. The act of tearing resources from the ground is a destructive one, so we regulate mining to try and minimize the impacts of that destruction.

Mining can have serious impacts on the environment
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What Rules Apply

Modern mining companies may find themselves subject to any number of laws, codes, policies, and orders. The violation of any of these could cost a company its rights to mine, so it's important to know which laws apply to you. The first key to this is knowing who's land your own.

For the most part mining companies are technically leasing land and minerals from the owner of the land, so who owns it? All lands in the USA are subject to federal laws; however, some laws only really matter if you're on federal land. Even then, the laws change if you're on Bureau of Land Management space, National Forests, or National Parks. If the land you're mining on is held by the state, then you're subject to specific state laws and regulations.

Municipal codes may also be in effect and, of course, state and municipal codes often still apply to the mining of federal lands if it can impact the welfare of the state. And let's not forget that tribal lands have regulations and laws all their own. All of this gets even more complicated when we remember that the entity which owns the surface may not be the same one that owns subsurface lands and resources. In short, the state may control the land but the federal government may control minerals under the surface, and the regulations of each apply.

Federal lands in the USA. Each color represents land operated by a different agency with different mining policies.
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Where you're mining can have major implications on what you can and cannot do. It also defines who is responsible for regulating your company and enforcing penalties if you violate laws, contracts, or codes. Depending on the land you're using, you could answer to state governments, the National Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency, US Securities and Exchange Commission, Department of Interior, and even the Justice Department.

Important Laws

There are many laws and policies that regulate the mining industry, but there are a few that really set the tone for mining in the United States today. The first, the one that provided the legal foundation for mining as we know it, is the General Mining Law of 1872. The GML defined the legal rights of citizens to seek out and claim minerals including gold, silver, copper, and lead, as well as gemstones, on federal land.

That's the basis of mining law, and all the regulations that have come since have had to work within that framework. One of the first substantial laws to use the environment as a reason to increase regulation was the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. NEPA mandated federal agencies to closely examine the environmental consequences of any major projects, including mining on or near federal lands.

NEPA set the tone for the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which gives the government the authority to control access to minerals and lands as long as it does not substantially interfere with the rights of GML. Still, FLPMA declared that mining could not ''result in unnecessary or undue degradation of public lands'' and gave the government power to enforce that over GML rights. FLPMA also gave the government legal authority to reclaim abandoned mines.

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