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September 24, 2021

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Interior nominee Salazar likely to push update, not overhaul, of mining law

As interior secretary, Sen. Ken Salazar may help execute changes in the mining law that governs Nevada’s No. 2 industry, but the Colorado Democrat is not seen as the catalyst for sweeping reforms long sought by critics of gold and other hard-rock mining operations in the West.

Salazar, announced Wednesday as President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for the post, is no stranger to minerals mining. The Alamosa River that runs near his family’s San Luis Valley home in Colorado was essentially destroyed by one of the nation’s worst modern gold mining disasters when a cyanide leaching operation overflowed in 1996.

Five years later, as state attorney general, he reached a landmark settlement in connection with the Summitville Mine incident for cleanup and habitat restoration.

Yet when the House in 2007 passed a long-sought bill to change the 1872 Mining Law by imposing 8 percent royalties and restricting where companies could mine, Salazar championed a “balanced approach” in the Senate.

“Responsible development of our mineral resources is critical to our economy and our environment,” Salazar testified in January. “We must find a balanced approach to reform that will ensure mineral development occurs in a manner consistent with the needs of mining communities and the protection of the environment and public lands, particularly our water resources.”

The mining industry is pleased with the choice.

National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston said Salazar understands “the need to keep U.S. mining competitive” with its rivals around the globe. “Colorado is a mining state, and I think he wants to ensure those good mining jobs stay in Colorado.”

Salazar is known as a consensus builder, a pragmatic former mining and water lawyer who once directed Colorado’s Natural Resources Department.

He supports modernizing the 136-year-old mining law, but appears to favor a more modest approach — much like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has long supported mining in Nevada, and Obama, who told voters on the campaign trail in Elko that he did not support the House bill.

Salazar was not the top choice of environmentalists, who have been buoyed by Obama’s presidency and are eager to reverse course after eight years of the Bush administration’s initiatives to open public lands to oil, gas and mining industries. Dozens of groups, many from the West, urged Obama to nominate Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva for the job.

Dan Randolph, executive director of Great Basin Mine Watch, a mining reform advocacy group in Reno, said Salazar’s nomination, “far from a bad choice, it’s not our first choice at the same time.”

Still Randolph and others think Salazar’s approach could bring, if not the sweeping reform sought since the Clinton administration, at least gradual changes to the regulations that govern gold and other mineral mines.

“He may actually have the pragmatism and common sense about issues that may help resolve the difficulties that have been around reform for so long,” Jane Danowitz of the Pew Center for Mining said.

One early test will be Salazar’s reaction to the proposals for uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, which Congress ordered halted this summer but the Bush administration helped further with a regulation issued this month, in the final days of the presidency.

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