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End the Gold Heist

THE Clinton-Babbitt environmental agenda is being tested this week in Congress.

Yesterday a Senate conference committee began examining a revision of the General Mining Law of 1872. The House, which has already passed a reform bill, is waiting to see if a compromise bill is possible.

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The mining law gained notoriety May 16 when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt objected to being forced, by law, to approve mining of some $10 billion worth of gold on federal land by Canadian-based Barrick Goldstrike Mines Inc., which paid the government a fee of less than $10,000. Mr. Babbitt termed the arrangement, legal under the 122-year-old law, ``a multibillion-dollar ripoff'' and ``the biggest gold heist since the days of Butch Cassidy.''

Since then, two more mining companies have sued the interior secretary to grant them title to land before a tougher federal law can be enacted. The land would cost less than $5,000.

The House bill, HR322, contains an 8 percent royalty fee to be paid out of the gross profits of mine operators who extract hard-rock minerals from federal lands. The fees would be plowed back into cleaning up abandoned mines. The bill also would establish standards to prevent contamination from mine runoff and require sites to be returned to their original condition. This bill is favored by environmental groups and Babbitt.

Senate bill S775, favored by mining companies, charges a 2 percent royalty on net, not gross, profits (making it uncertain that any money would be collected at all) and sets no reclamation standards.

Senators from Western states argue that the House bill will cost thousands of mining jobs. Reform advocates say that mine cleanup efforts will create thousands of others. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana is trying to broker a compromise.

The 8 percent figure is not sacrosanct, but any fee must be meaningful. Surface-mined coal, oil, and natural-gas extractors, for example, pay a 12.5 percent gross royalty on what they take from federal land.

The administration does not want to rile Western senators whose votes it needs on other pressing issues. But at some point Clinton and Babbitt must show that their environmental agenda is not just talk with no action.

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Reform won't kill the mining companies' golden goose. Americans have a right to a tiny part of what's in the nest: After all, it's on our land.

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