MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Bush Administration Declares War on Environment and the Poor

Published by MAC on 2003-01-17


Bush Administration Declares War on Environment and the Poor

During 2002 the US government launched an unprecedented series of measures to repeal or dilute laws seeking to protect the nation's environment - and many of its poorest peoples - from pollution and desecration. In response, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has issued a damning report on this legislative "rollback", outlined below.

At the same time, the administration has proposed the less-publicised introduction of water pollution "credits" - similar to those used in carbon emmissions trading - which the NRDC alleges will also contribute to the destructive burden bourne by rural and Indigenous communities. Control of acid mine drainage risks being compromised even further than at present.

The cue for this massive reversal of environmental improvement to the world's most mined and also mineral-exploiting state has come principally from the oil, gas and hard rock mining industries backed by their political supporters. One of these is the governor of Nevada, a state already suffering up to half a million abandoned mine sites, of which around 15,000 may currently be causing "irreparable harm". (see below)


Bush Record on Environment Called Dismal

Washington, DC, January 17, 2003 (ENS)

The Bush administration undermined America's landmark environmental laws on almost a daily basis in 2001, two new reports suggest.

The reports document more than 100 anti-environmental actions by the administration last year, and point to on going efforts to undermine existing protections and delay proposed new rules that could help the environment.

For the second year in a row, federal agencies announced dozens of regulatory changes that will weaken safeguards for the nation's air, water, wetlands, forests, wildlands, wildlife and public health, finds a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The report highlights the fact that the administration intensified its assault on environmental protections after the November mid-term congressional elections, and reveals how the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) played a central role in coordinating the onslaught.

These conclusions are echoed by the budget watchdog group OMBWatch, which reports that the Bush administration has advanced very few health, safety and environmental protections over thelast two years - much fewer than the two previous administrations - and is quietly scuttling work on a host of protective standards in the regulatory pipeline.

"Last year, the White House escalated its efforts to trample our bedrock environmental laws," said Gregory Wetstone, NRDC's director of advocacy. "And it's going to get worse.America's environmental protections have been challenged before, but never have they faced a threat as far-reaching, insidious and destructive as the one posed by the Bush administration and the new Congress."

The NRDC report, "Rewriting the Rules: The Bush Administration's Assault on the Environment - 2002," shows that the White House has enlisted every federal agency that oversees environmental programs in a coordinated effort to relax regulations for oil, coal, logging, mining, chemical, automakers and other industries. Some of the most glaring examples documented in the report include:

"It's no accident some of the Bush administration's biggest handouts to corporate interests happened after Election Day,"said Wetstone. "Americans voted for many things in November,but they didn't vote for a sweeping attack on the environment."

The report also notes how the Bush administration routinely tries to minimize public scrutiny of its anti-environmental policies by withholding information from the media until late on Friday evenings or around major holidays. For example, theEPA announced its major changes to the Clean Air Act a few days after Thanksgiving and on New Year's Eve. After the snowmobile industry appealed to the Bush administration, the Interior Department overturned a ban on the noisy machines in Yellowstone National Park.

The administration also uses environmentally friendly euphemisms to mask the true intent and impact of its policy proposals, the NRDC argues. The White House dubbed its plan to allow timber companies increased access to old-growth forests- under the guise of fire prevention - the "Healthy Forests"initiative, and refers to logging as "thinning."

"America's landmark environmental laws have safeguarded our health, improved our quality of life, and preserved our natural heritage," said Wetstone. "The Bush administration's quiet, back door assault on environmental protections is no less an attack on the air we breathe, the water we drink and the last remaining special places we hold dear."

OMB Watch examined the Bush administration's regulatory output of "economically significant" rules over its first two years, focusing on a number of agencies responsible for health, safety and environmental protections. The group found that under the Bush administration, the EPA has completed just two major rules - both required by court order, and both weakened at the request of affected industry - compared to 23 completed by the Clinton administration over its first two years and 14by the first Bush administration over its first two years.

The most meaningful and important regulations are invariably deemed "economically significant," meaning they have an estimated total impact of at least $100 million per year, including benefits. These are the regulations that have broad application, such as EPA's standard on arsenic in drinking water, or OSHA's now-repealed ergonomics standard.

Almost all of the many Clinton-era rules that the Bush administration repealed or weakened were "economically significant," OMB Watch has determined. Critics say that Bush's so called "Clear Skies" initiative could actually worsen air pollution.

OMB Watch also examined the regulatory agendas of three agencies - the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration - to see what has changed during the Bush administration. They found that the EPA has halted workon 48 environmental standards, the FDA has stopped work on 56 standards, and OSHA has halted 21 new standards. OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is now instructing federal agencies to evaluate hundreds of regulatory recommendations submitted by outside parties - most of which are industry groups and trade associations, OMBWatch found.

"Rewriting the Rules" is available on NRDC's Web site

The OMB Watch report, "Administration Advances Few Health, Safety and Environmental Protections," is available at: http://www.ombwatch.org/execreport/


Summary of part of "Rewriting the Rules", a Report of the Majority staff ofthe Committee on Governmental Affairs of the US Senate, publishedWashington DC October 24 2002

President George W Bush in 2002 dismantled Interior Department (DOI) rules, presented on January 19 2001, which were intended to "remedy long standing problems associated with hard-rock mining for mines such as silver, copper or gold " on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This territory comprises a swathe of public lands in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Washington state and Wyoming.

"Repeated failures by mining companies to reclaim sites adversely affected by their mining activities have left landscapes throughout the West marred by large open pits and land erosion and water resources polluted by toxic drainage" declares the Report. [op cit page 50].

The scale of the pollution can be gauged from the fact that stream reaches in the headwaters of an estimated 40% of watersheds in this vast region have been contaminated, even though the full extent of despoliation and their mediation costs are not known. However, fourteen years earlier, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) had set a conservative figure for reclamation of around US$284 million.

In particular the report says that cyanide leaching , especially heapleaching, has "raised concerns" [p.51]. In illustration it cites the collapse of the Zortman-Landusky mine in 1982 (the company later filed successfully for bankruptcy) and the Summitville cyanide-related disasters ten years later.

The new rules, introduced in early 2001, were aimed at compelling effective post-mining clean-ups, applying stricter operating standards, and banning mine plans which could cause "substantial irreparable harm" to the surrounding area. The latter would be vetoed.

Although these rules had been under development since 1989 they were still not regarded as watertight. Therefore a bonding system - mandating companies to bank sufficient funds to cover future liabilities was also to be made mandatory [page 53].

From 1992 until 1997 little happened to implement the rules, except confirmation of the bonding system that year . But, with public pressures mounting (there were numerous public hearings in that five year period) on November 21 2000 the BLM finally published the regulations which. included the crucial veto against permitting potentially dangerous new mining projects.

This was the trigger for an unprecedented mining "fight back" which centred on suits by the industry initiated in Nevada, the most important hard-rock mining state, vigorously backed by the state governor, who seemed to have a direct line to the White House. His response was hardly surprising since, as well as hosting 45% of the total mining claims in theUS, Nevada is also saddled with between 200,000 and 500,000 abandoned minesites, of which around 15,000 are estimated to be serious present day sources of pollution [page 63]. The new rules were to become operative just after Bush entered office but as the Report rather coyly puts it they "did not escape the new administration's sights". Indeed "the mining industry and its supporters believed they had a virtual commitment by the incoming administration to get rid of the mining rules" [page 58]. Almost before he mounted Capitol Hill, the new occupant of the White House was rumoured to have signed a "moratorium" against the pending legislation [page 59].

Internal Department of the Interior [DOI} papers show "how the administration hewed (sic) to its familiar pattern: investing energy in exploiting how to dismantle this important environmental protection", without at any point evaluating or challenging the substance of the proposals themselves [page 60] .

During 1991 the BLM came under fire from several points. There was the Republican administration and the mining industry on the one hand, the public and environmental lobbyists on the other (95% of comments received at this time wanted a return to the reformist legislation drawn up inNovember 2000). Finding itself between a rock and a hard place, the BLM "picked and mixed" the rules, deleting the clauses which would have prohibited "unnecessary and undue" degradation of land, causing "irreparable harm", as well as taking away the Bureau's right to disallow a project it considered would cause such harm. [pages 63-64].

Moreove, the BLM threw out most of the provisions which set environmental and performance standards, returning them to the 1980 level (though it still preserved some provisions to limit cyanide heap leaching and the creation of acid forming materials.

The mining rollback was almost complete. It then simply served for Bush to pressure the tooth-drawn EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) to reversing prohibitions on mine wastes which can be legally emptied into rivers and lakes , which had been in place since 1972.


Water Pollution Trading Plan Wins Support

By J.R. Pegg

Washington, DC, January 13, 2003 (ENS)

The Bush administration believes market incentives can be more effective than conventional regulations in reducing the pollution run off that continues to contaminate waterways across the United States. Unlike many of the administration's environmental policies, today's announcement found support among states, industry groups and environmentalists.

The new National Water Quality Training Program, unveiled today by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),calls for states and local municipalities to develop and put into practice water quality trading programs that allow polluters to trade, sell and buy pollution reduction credits. "This policy is a real win for the environment," said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman at today's media briefing atthe National Press Club. "It uses the power of the market to achieve the next generation of progress in water quality. It will result in cleaner water, at less cost and in less time."

The EPA has made $800,000 available to fund 11 pilot programs,Whitman said, and this new market based policy represents "the wave of the future for environmental protection."

"It is unusual to find an environmental organization supporting administration policy, but this is sound environmental policy coming out of the EPA and we welcome it,"said Paul Faeth, managing director of the World Resources Institute (WRI). "Trading can be a cheaper answer to solving water quality problems in the United States and around the world."

As described by the EPA, water quality trading programs allow pollution sources to meet regulatory obligations by purchasing credits from facilities that have exceeded their mandated water quality standards or from non-regulated sources, such as farmers. The water quality standards stay the same, the EPA says, but the efficiency of implementing the standards is increased and costs decreased.

"This provides greater flexibility to the states in addressing extremely complex pollution problems," said Roberta Savage, executive director of the Association of State and InterstateWater Pollution Control Administrators. These programs will largely target phosphorous, nitrogen and other nutrient run off that can cause water pollution. Trading programs, Whitman said, provide economic incentives for those with lower costs of compliance to cut pollution levels further.

"Within a watershed the most effective and economical way to reduce pollution is to provide incentives to encourage action by those who can achieve the reduction more easily and more cost effectively," Whitman said.

The administration believes this approach will be integral in its efforts to reduce non-point source pollution, without putting additional burdens on America's farmers and ranchers, said Whitman.

Non-point source pollution, unlike pollution from industrial and sewage treatment plants, comes from many diffuse sources.

It is caused by rain or snow melt moving over and through the ground. As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and manufactured pollutants, depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and underground sources of drinking water.

The pollutants may include excess fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides from agricultural lands and residential areas;oil, grease, and toxic chemicals from urban runoff and energy production; sediment from improperly managed construction sites, crop and forest lands, and eroding streambanks;salt from irrigation practices and acid drainage from abandoned mines; bacteria and nutrients from livestock, pet wastes, and faulty septic systems, according to the EPA. But not all environmental organizations are convinced today's announcement is good policy. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that it supports trading programs that improve water quality by setting pollution limits that decline over time, called "cap and trade" programs.

But NRDC charges that this new EPA policy does not require acap, does not require polluters to reduce their discharges over time, and allows polluters to avoid compliance by simply buying credits.

In addition, the NRDC believes the new policy could be proven illegal because it violates the premise that the CleanWater Act should protect all waterways from pollution.

"Under this scheme, the water quality in some of our lakes,streams and rivers will be traded away for the benefit ofother waterways," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's CleanWater Project. "The EPA is trading good quality water for bad."

"Under this policy, our waterways are for sale," Stoner charged. "Only corporate polluters will benefit. "The 11 pilot programs include a program that targets nitrogen reduction in the Chesapeake Bay, one that aims to reduce selenium levels in tributaries of the Lower Colorado River as well as a project to explore the feasibility of trading to reduce mercury levels in the Sacramento River. The possible trading of toxics, such as mercury, is another concern for NRDC which is concerned that this could create toxic hot spots that threaten the health of children who play in, drink from, or eat fish from contaminated water.

"Poor communities, disadvantaged communities and minority communities will bear the brunt of this misguided policy," said Stoner. "They are the least likely to have the resources to protect themselves from corporate polluters."

The EPA says its policy does not support any trading activity that would cause a toxic effect, exceed a human health criterion or cause an impairment of water quality. Administration officials said the EPA currently does not support trading of persistent bio-accumulative toxic pollutants.

The administration cited Connecticut as one state that has successfully pushed ahead with a trading program. According to state officials, a nitrogen trading program among publicly owned wastewater treatment works in Connecticut has saved the state some $200 million in avoided costs in sewage treatment plant reconstruction projects.

"This policy is a key tool to achieve the next level of pollution control," said Tom Morrissey, director of planning and standards for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

The Connecticut plan relies on trading between point sources of pollution, rather than between non-point and point sources.

EPA officials said this new trading plan is drawing on the experience it has with a similar trading program for reducing acid rain. That program is credited with cutting sulfur dioxide emissions some 34 percent since 1990. The new trading policy relied heavily on a World Resources Institute report, authored by Faeth, which states that in theUnited States today, some 3,400 waterways are impaired by nutrient pollution.

Faeth examined the potential effectiveness of a trading program between point and non-point sources and found it could cut the cost of compliance by some 60 to 80 percent. His report, "Fertile ground: Nutrient trading's potential to cost effectively improve water quality," analyzed the cost of controlling phosphorous loadings in three watersheds in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.

There is concern that the EPA's excitement over its new policy is not matched by the research. No one at the press conference could cite a scholarly study or analysis of water quality trading other than the WRI report or an internal EPA review that began under the Clinton administration.

That review, according to EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Tracy Meehan, indicated water quality trading programs could ultimately save the nation up to $7.5 billion in cleanup costs. She said, "This is a new frontier for the water program and this is only the beginning."

For more information on the EPA's policy and water qualitytrading programs, see: http://www.epa.gov/owow/watershed/trading.htm

Read the World Resources Institute report "Fertile ground."To prevent non-point source pollution, the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay offers advice for householders at: http://www.epa.gov/owow/nps/abc.html

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