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END A GIVEAWAY THAT GOES BACK TO GRANT

Back in 1995, Noranda Inc., a Canadian mining company, used an archaic U.S. law to stake a claim to gold mining territory just three miles from Yellowstone National Park, where great natural wonders draw traveling Americans like a magnet pulling in metal filings.

Estimates had it that $500 million worth of gold rested in the mountain country staked out by Noranda. But it would have meant noise, pollution and scenic blight for Yellowstone visitors. Even worse, the mining operation would have left behind -- forever -- millions of tons of poisonous acidic slurry entombed in a high alpine valley.

Fortunately, the Clinton administration stepped in. A White House announcement earlier this month disclosed that two years of negotiations with Noranda had concluded with the transfer of the land to the U.S. Forest Service. That ends the chance of a gold mine near Yellowstone.

But the case is not really closed. Congress needs to fix the 1872 giveaway law that allows those who believe there are hard-rock minerals on federal land to stake out claims, acquire the land for no more than $5 an acre, remove the minerals without paying royalties to the federal government and leave without a cleanup.

The law was passed back when Ulysses S. Grant was president and has been virtually unchanged since then. It was meant to encourage settlement of the West by miners with picks and shovels. But today's mining is done by giant corporations using heavy machinery and toxic chemicals to extract their find. More than 3.2 million acres of public land have been deeded to mining companies through the years. Great tons of waste, ugly scars and polluted streams have been left behind.

Clearly, Congress needs to reform this giveaway of the nation's resources. Instead, a group of Republican legislators from the West, devoted to the mining companies, are pushing an appropriations bill rider that would effectively prevent any new Interior Department mining-law regulations for more than two years. Obviously, they hope the Republicans will control the executive branch by that time.

The right direction would be passage of a set of bills by Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. They would establish royalties, impose a fee on mining companies to be used for reclamation and eliminate a tax-code depletion allowance that amounts to double dipping for mining companies. Passage would begin to curb the nonsense.

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