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Originally published Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Common-sense mining reform protects nature, consumers

Jewelry symbolizes affection, love and commitment. Jewelry, and the metals mined to create it, should also embody environmental and social...

Special to The Times

Jewelry symbolizes affection, love and commitment. Jewelry, and the metals mined to create it, should also embody environmental and social responsibility. As co-CEO of a family-run jewelry company, I want to be able to tell my customers that the precious metals we use are mined responsibly. No one wants to buy a "dirty gold" wedding ring or a "blood diamond" anniversary gift, and we don't want to sell them.

That's why my company and 26 other leading jewelers support the "golden rules" for responsible sourcing developed by nonprofit groups, including EARTHWORKS and Oxfam, and the retail jewelers trade association, Jewelers of America.

While an international dialogue between nongovernmental organizations, retailers, multinational mining companies and affected communities has begun to wrestle with how to apply the "golden rules" on a global basis, we have an opportunity to lead the way here at home.

Unfortunately, there's an obstacle blocking more-responsible mining in the United States — the badly outdated 1872 Mining Law, which affects hundreds of millions of acres of Western public lands. Intended to spur development of the West, the law is virtually the same today as it was when President Ulysses S. Grant signed it.

Nearly everyone agrees reform is needed. The reasons are compelling: The law contains no environmental provisions, it gives mining preferential treatment over other uses of our public lands, and it perpetuates a land giveaway at 1872 prices. In addition, mining companies can buy public lands for $2.50 to $5 an acre and they don't pay any royalty for the gold or silver. These giveaways have been temporarily suspended, but they remain part of the old law.

The net result is a loss of royalty dollars to our national treasury as well as polluted water and hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines across the West. Some of these mines are so contaminated with toxins that they pose an imminent threat to people or wildlife and end up as Superfund sites.

With metals prices skyrocketing, thousands of new mining claims are being staked on public lands. In Washington alone, claims increased 14 percent between 2003 and 2007, according to federal data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

Here in the Evergreen State, there is a new proposal for an open-pit nickel and copper mine next to Mount St. Helens National Monument, which has downstream towns, including Kelso, worried. This same story is repeated around the West in places such as Boise, Tucson and Bristol Bay, Alaska, home of the world's largest wild sockeye salmon runs.

Jewelers support common-sense mining-law reforms. The U.S. House of Representatives approved a comprehensive bill late last year, and not a moment too soon. The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act, HR 2262, would fix many of the old law's worst failings by:

• Empowering federal land managers to balance mining with other uses of our public lands, such as for clean water and places to hike, hunt and fish;

• Giving local governments and tribes a voice in decisions about whether to site new mines near their communities;

• Setting common-sense standards to protect clean water;

• Protecting national parks, monuments, wild and scenic rivers, and roadless backcountry;

• Ending the sale of public lands claimed for mining;

• Providing for abandoned-mine cleanup with a reasonable royalty on the mining industry, which currently pays nothing. Cleanup will be expensive — as much as $50 billion — but would create jobs and restore our poisoned streams to health.

These are principles that the jewelry industry can get behind. Mining contributes to our business and the nation's economy in important ways. Now is the time to scrap the old law for a modern approach that upholds 21st-century Western values and benefits responsible mining companies. Our public lands and clean water are our most precious resources, not to be squandered by a law enacted before the light bulb was invented. Rather, they must be cherished and shared with our families.

As the U.S. Senate considers reform this year, I encourage lawmakers to keep the principles laid out in HR 2262 in mind as they move forward.

With jewelry retailers, hunters and anglers, local elected officials, tribes and conservationists across the West supporting reform, I hope that, soon, consumers can be assured that the gold in the rings and bracelets they purchase come from mines governed by a new law that puts water and communities first and assures the American public of a fair financial return for the mining of our natural resources.

Jon Bridge is the co-CEO of Ben Bridge Jeweler, a 78-store chain headquartered in Seattle.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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