WHEN Congress and the administration tackle one of the most contentious natural-resource issues this fall, they'll have more than 120 years of history to deal with.
The issue is hard-rock mining in the West, which carries with it a legacy of old mines that pollute the environment.
``Abandoned hard-rock mines have sterilized rivers and streams, contaminated drinking-water supplies beyond use, and killed countless numbers of fish and wildlife,'' Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said recently.
``We need a cleanup program now,'' asserts Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. ``Water tables, lakes, and rivers are being devastated by heavy metals and acids from abandoned mines. The longer we wait, the more costly the damage becomes.''
The extent of the problem and what to do about it are subjects of strong argument. In their recent comments, Mr. Babbitt and Mr. Miller were responding to a report from the Mineral Policy Center regarding some half-million mines ``that scar the American landscape'' - including the pollution of 12,000 miles of waterways and 180,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs. The center is a private research and lobbying group that urges reform of the 1872 Mining Law, which governs Western hard-rock mining since the time when equipment consisted mainly of a dusty burro and pickax.
Cleaning up abandoned mines, the Mineral Policy Center's ``Burden of Gilt'' report estimates, will cost between $32 billion and $71 billion. This includes some 50 mines included on the ``Superfund'' program's National Priorities List of most dangerous toxic-waste sites.
One such mine is Iron Mountain along the Sacramento River in California, reportedly the largest source of copper found 300 miles downstream in San Francisco Bay. Other mines are Clark Fork sites near Butte, Mont., which could cost nearly $1 billion to clean up, according to a recent study by Miller's committee.
Industry experts say mine critics are blowing the issue of old polluting mines out of proportion to force reform of the 1872 law.
``The key question is whether, and the extent to which, any of these sites pose significant environmental threats,'' Graham Clark, senior vice president and general counsel of the Newmont Mining Corporation, told Miller's committee earlier this summer. ``The answer is that no one really knows. That is why the mining industry has emphasized that there needs to be an inventory to identify inactive unreclaimed sites that pose significant environmental or safety risks. It is very likely that the number is exceedingly small.''
That assessment is at sharp odds with the Mineral Policy Center's estimate that some 20,000 abandoned mines need ``extensive'' work likely to cost tens of billions of dollars.
Still, of the 557,650 abandoned hard-rock mines cited in ``Burden of Gilt,'' 76 percent need very little, if any, remediation, the report authors say. Mine operators also note a recent Nevada Department of Minerals probe that found that of 5,400 mine sites only 11 showed potential for ``chemical toxicity.''
In addition, industry officials say, mining operations these days must operate under strict environmental regulations - such as the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, including cleanup and restoration provisions.
`BEFORE an ounce of earth is moved, mine operators must file and receive approval for detailed plans committing them to returning the land to safe and stable condition,'' Douglas Yearly, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of the Phelps Dodge Corporation, said recently on behalf of the Mineral Resources Alliance. ``They also must provide financial assurances to back up these permits and plans.''
But for critics, such regulations are not enough. They favor a mining-reform bill written by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas, which would charge an 8 percent royalty on proceeds from mining on public lands and dedicate half these royalties to an ``Abandoned Hard-Rock Mine Reclamation Fund.''
The industry prefers a bill written by Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho, which also has a reclamation provision but provides no funding from its much lower 2 percent royalty. At present, hard-rock-mining firms, unlike coal-mining firms, pay no royalty on income they derive from minerals extracted on federal lands. Such companies also can gain title to the land for as little as $2.50 an acre - another target of mine reformers.
Advanced technology has allowed miners to extract gold and other precious metals from ore previously considered not worth the expense of operations. Some experts now think that such technology could allow companies to profitably ``remine'' old sites - cleaning up the leftover mess in the process.
But one concern here is the potential for liability under the Superfund law.
Says Maxine Stewart, chairman of Colorado's Mined Land Reclamation Board: ``If you really want to fix things, pass legislation that frees participants from future liability when they actually clean up or safeguard mining sites.''