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Mine and Mineral Law

The law governing the ownership, sale, and operation of mines, quarries, and wells, and the rights to natural resources found in the earth.

The extraction of natural resources from the earth is governed by specific laws dealing with mines and minerals. Federal and state governments have mine and mineral laws to protect the health and safety of miners, encourage the efficient use of natural resources, protect the environment, and raise tax revenues.

A mine is an excavation in the soil and sub-soil from which ores, coal, or other mineral substances are removed. A mineral is valuable, inert matter created by forces of nature and found either on or in the earth. A mineral right is the possessory interest in minerals in the ground. The owner of the mineral rights has the right to enter the land and occupy it for the purpose of removing the minerals. It is possible for someone to own the mineral rights and mine the minerals without owning the land itself.

The federal government has played a large role in the exploitation of mineral resources by granting mineral rights, called PATENTS, to persons and companies that wish to mine on land owned by the federal government. The Mining Act of 1872 has remained unchanged since its enactment during the presidential administration of ULYSSES S. GRANT. The law tried to help small prospectors by making land more affordable. It set the price of mineral rights to federal property at between $2.50 and $5.00 an acre and gave prospectors the right to mine without paying ROYALTIES. A royalty is the payment by the lessor to the owner of the property of a percentage of the value of the minerals that are mined.

The Mining Act of 1872 has drawn increased criticism since the 1980s because of the small amount of money companies pay to obtain mineral rights valued at millions and even billions of dollars and because the companies do not have to pay a royalty to the federal government. Most of the federal land is located in the West. Western legislators have been unwilling to amend the law, out of fear that changes would reduce employment and depress the mining industry. Attempts to amend the act to raise the price of mineral rights and to impose a royalty have met fierce resistance by western lawmakers and the mining industry, which is dominated by companies located outside the United States.

Mining operations are considered one of the main sources of environmental POLLUTION. Under the Mining Act of 1872, mining companies are not required to clean up mining sites that are on federal property. The ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY estimates that cleaning up fifty-five of the United States' most dangerous mines will cost taxpayers $32 billion. On lands that are not owned by the federal government, state and federal environmental regulations require mining companies to clean up and restore their mining sites.

Mining is a dangerous occupation. Since the late 1960s, state and federal legislation has set numerous operating standards regarding dust and gas concentrations in the mines, as well as general rules regarding roof support. These provisions attempt to prevent explosions, mine collapses, and the breathing of tainted air. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (30 U.S.C.A. § 801) is a comprehensive safety and health act that applies to all metal and nonmetal mines, including coal mines.

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