Feature - US update on Western land grabPublished by MAC on 2005-11-22
Feature - US update on Western land grab
By Planet Ark
22nd November 2005
WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats are vowing to kill a House plan they say would allow mining companies to buy millions of acres of western federal land, including some within California's Yosemite and Joshua Tree national parks, at cheap prices.
The House voted to update a century-old mining law to sell or "patent" western land to the industry for $1,000 per acre, or fair market value. Environmental groups say that could open up as many as 350 million acres of public lands to real estate speculators and oil companies, not just mining firms.
The land sale, introduced by Nevada Republican Jim Gibbons, was included in a $50 billion budget-cutting bill the House narrowly approved last week. It was not in the Senate's $35 billion version of a budget reduction bill.
Next month, House and Senate negotiators will try to reconcile both bills into a final one and some Senate Democrats say they are determined to delete the land sale measure.
"It would result in a deeply troubling outcome," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat. He described the House plan as a "fire sale" that would hurt national parks and forests and have "far-reaching negative consequences."
Congress has been scurrying to find new ways to cut spending with the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina draining the government's coffers. The mining provision would bring in an estimated gross of $426 million in revenue over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said the land sale "could allow claimants to carve out numerous private enclaves within our public lands."
A key issue is whether the bill would allow the sale of 1,000 acres of existing land claims within national parks.
Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the House Resources Committee headed by California Republican Richard Pombo, called that assertion "absolutely, positively, patently false." A section of the bill explicitly bars the sale of land in national parks, national wildlife refuges, and other federal wilderness areas, Kennedy said.
Democrats and environmentalists say the bill language also allows the sale of "existing claims" -- which includes about 1,000 acres of land within a few of national parks. More worrisome is 2 million acres of existing claims located within five miles of national parks, national forests and wildlife refuges throughout the West, they say.
CENTURY-OLD LAW UPDATED
The House legislation dusted off and updated an 1872 mining law, according to supporters.
To help settle the US West, Congress passed the law to make it easy to stake a claim for the purpose of extracting minerals. Those who wanted to own land claims had to take the additional step of "patenting," or buying it, for $2 to $5 per acre. Some people laid claims to land that was later incorporated into national parks. And not all claim areas became mining sites -- some have sat untouched for a century.
In 1994, the government halted the sale of public lands for mining, which were still selling for $5 an acre or less. The new House bill would permit anyone who had a claim before the ban to patent the land, but pay at least $1,000 an acre.
The Environmental Working Group said federal land bought under the proposed law -- in or out of national parks -- could be resold for a quick profit or used for non-mining purposes.
"Big box (store) developers, condo developers, why wouldn't they? What would stop them?" said Lauren Sucher, a spokeswoman for Environmental Working Group.
Kennedy said costs would prevent such maneuvers.
The bill requires a company to prove that "mineral development" once occurred on a piece of land or to set up operations related to extracting minerals in order to buy the patent. Corporations are not going to spend dollars to create sham mining operations, Kennedy said.
"You're telling me that a real estate company is going to put up all that, go through all that process, risk all of that capital, knowing full well the whole time that for them to flip it for something other than mining would constitute defrauding the federal government?" he said. "That's just dumb."
The notion, though, is not so farfetched.
Before the 1994 ban, the Government Accountability Office found patented sites throughout the West had been turned into housing developments and resorts. In 1974, the GAO said that 80 percent of sites it visited "showed no evidence that minerals had been extracted" and patented land was used for non-mining purposes. Supporters say if companies do build other businesses where mines have been depleted, they are helping the rural economy.
"Without this measure, the jobs and infrastructures of these communities can literally disappear when a mine closes," said Rep. Gibbons. "We cannot allow the scare tactics of a few anti-energy, anti-development and anti-private property special interests to threaten thousands of American families."
Because the land would be privatized, supporters say regulating it would become the responsibility of the owners, saving the federal government many costs.
This is what worries many critics.
"Once the land is patented it's that way forever. It's private land," said Lauren Pagel of activist group Earthworks.
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
Jewelers of America Opposes Public Land Sales to Mining Companies
15th November 2005
(ENS) - Jewelers of America, the nation's largest retail jewelry trade association, sent a letter to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert on Monday night urging him to strip controversial mining provisions from the House budget reconciliation bill.
The letter, signed by Jewelers of America President and CEO Matthew Runci, expressed concern that the mining provisions authored by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a California Republican, "would result in a massive giveaway of public land giveaway to corporations and private interests."
Pombo's language would permit private corporations engaged in mining to purchase public lands such as national forests, monuments and wilderness areas. More than 270 million acres of federal public lands in the West would be thrown open for sale if the current version of House budget bill becomes law.
The House Republican leadership pulled the budget reconciliation bill from the floor last Thursday when it became clear that they did not have the votes to pass it, even though they had removed language authorizing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The House is expected to resume discussions on the bill today with a vote possible later this week.
Jewelers of America has a stake in the outcome of this legislative battle because its retail members depend on the consumer appeal of gold and other minerals and metals.
The Jewelers of America letter states, "Any reforms to the mining laws must be done in the 'light of day' with full consideration by the committees of jurisdiction and with ample opportunity for the public to examine and comment on the legislation. Disguising major changes in our environmental laws as 'miscellaneous' and merely a 'revenue raiser' simply does not serve the public interest. These lands have been held in trust for the public and should be treated as such."
"Thanks to Jewelers of America for standing up for special places like the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area," said Mary Mitchell, executive director of Rock Creek Alliance, based in Sandpoint, Idaho. "Congress should listen to Jewelers of America and other business and community leaders and take the mining provisions out of the budget bill."
Mitchell and others are concerned that if the Pombo provisions are passed into law, Revett Minerals Inc. could buy public land adjacent to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and construct the mine without any federal agency oversight of the potential impacts that pollution from the mine would have on the nearby Clark Fork River and Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho's largest freshwater lake.
EARTHWORKS, a Washington, DC-based environmental organization, Oxfam America, a humanitarian relief and development organization, and Westerners for Responsible Mining, a coalition committed to protecting public lands and communities in the western U.S. welcomed the unexpected action by Jewelers of America.
"We applaud Jewelers of America for their strong stand against this sneak attack on our western public land heritage," said Steve D'Esposito, president of EARTHWORKS.
"All of us who have a direct stake in this issue, including local communities, jewelry companies, mining professionals and mining companies, should stand together," D'Esposito said. "By allowing the reckless privatization of our public lands, Pombo's provisions would promote land speculation and real estate development, which could threaten the interests of responsible mining companies."
Gloomy Asbestos Study Criticized at US Senate Hearing
By Susan Cornwell
21st November 2005
WASHINGTON - A study that said a proposed $140 billion asbestos victims' compensation fund would quickly run out of money came in for criticism at a US Senate hearing Thursday.
An economist and a medical director who have worked on asbestos issues questioned the analysis by Bates White, a Washington economic consulting firm.
Several senators nonetheless said questions about the proposed fund's viability had to be resolved before the Senate takes up a bill to establish the compensation plan.
"If this isn't known before the New Year, I don't know how we can consider this bill on the floor in January," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who supported the fund when the Judiciary Committee approved the bill in May.
The Senate bill would end hundreds of thousands of asbestos injury lawsuits and create a trust of $140 billion financed by asbestos defendant companies and their insurers to compensate victims harmed by exposure to the fibrous mineral.
The Senate's leaders say the bill will be one of the first legislative issues before the chamber next year.
Asbestos, widely used for fireproofing and insulation until the 1970s, has been linked to cancer and other diseases. Injury claims have bankrupted dozens of US companies.
The analysis by Bates White released in September said the proposed fund would face claims of between $301 billion and $561 billion and go broke within three years.
In contrast, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in August the long-term costs of the fund at between $120 billion and $150 billion.
The bill provides for a return to the courts if the fund dries up. The Bates White study "grossly overestimated the population at risk from asbestos disease," Denise Martin, senior vice president at the National Economic Research Associates in New York told Thursday's hearing of the Judiciary Committee. Martin said the study had included many industries and occupations in which workers are likely to have had little or no exposure to asbestos, such as taxi drivers.
Laura Welch, medical director at the Center to Protect Workers Rights, said Bates White had assumed a barber who started work in 1970 had the same risk of asbestos-related cancer as a shipyard insulator during World War Two. "Clearly this is not the case," said Welch.
Charles Bates, chairman of Bates White, countered that the a large number of people who do not currently have valid court claims for asbestos-related injuries would file for compensation if the fund is established.
He said millions of people were alive who had worked in occupations covered by the proposed legislation, and "the act greatly increases the incentives to file" claims.
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
State, Local Air Officials Urge Rapid Mercury Emissions Cuts
15th November 2005
(ENS) - State and local air pollution control authorities Monday issued what they call a "quicker, more effective approach" to cleaning up toxic mercury emitted by coal fired power plants than a "highly flawed rule" issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some emissions reductions would be required by 2008, while the EPA would not require any before 2018, although some earlier cuts in mercury emission are projected as a byproduct of emissions limits for other pollutants. Under the auspices of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators (STAPPA) and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials (ALAPCO), the state and local regulators have developed what they call a "model rule" that they say could be adapted by air agencies around the nation to cut emissions more quickly.
"We all agree that mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin - something that threatens the health of babies and adults alike - and that coal-burning power plants are a significant source of mercury emissions," said John A. Paul, supervisor of the Regional Air Pollution Control Agency in Dayton, Ohio and president of ALAPCO. "The real question is, what's the best way to address this problem?"
On March 15, 2005, the EPA issued the Clean Air Mercury Rule to permanently cap and reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants for the world's first attempt at limiting airborne mercury. About 75 tons of mercury are found in the coal delivered to power plants each year and about two-thirds of this mercury is emitted to the air, resulting in about 50 tons being emitted annually.
"We believe our plan is a much better way to go," said Eddie Terrill, director of the Oklahoma Air Quality Division and president of STAPPA.
"EPA's approach would allow too much mercury for too long. The STAPPA/ALAPCO model rule gives state and local authorities a better option as they move forward on this issue," Terrill said.
The proposed model rule calls for far deeper cuts in mercury emissions from electric power plants than the rules issued earlier this year by the EPA. Unlike the federal approach, the state and local plan would not permit power companies to trade mercury emissions credits.
It would require that electric power companies eliminate up to 95 percent of their toxic mercury emissions by 2012. This flexible cleanup strategy would have two phases, with interim controls and associated emission reductions required by 2008. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), one of the nation's largest environmental groups, applauded the new proposal made by state, territorial and local air pollution control officials.
"Today, states sent a clear message that we have the technical know-how to clean up toxic mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants to protect future generations," said the NWF. "While we hoped the model state mercury rule would have been tougher, the state air directors demonstrated leadership at a time when no leadership exists at the federal level to protect future generations against toxic mercury pollution," the NWF said.
Mercury pollution has been linked to serious health problems ranging from damage to the brains of infants, making it more difficult for children to learn, to heart attacks in adults. Forty-five states have fish advisories warning people to avoid or limit eating mercury-contaminated fish. The Food and Drug Administration has cautioned pregnant and nursing mothers, especially, to avoid or limit consumption of some mercury-tainted fish, including canned tuna.
Coal-burning electric power plants are the largest unregulated source of mercury in the nation.
"Mercury emissions from coal-fired electric plants pose a serious threat to public health and the environment," explained Paul. "This is a problem that requires a swift and effective response."
After abruptly discontinuing a stakeholder process several years ago, EPA drafted and, earlier this year, issued, rules that would call for a gradual reduction in mercury emissions over the next two decades. Under EPA's rules, overall emissions would drop by 69 percent.
But, according to the agency's own projections, because power companies would be allowed to "trade" the right to pollute and could "bank" early reductions, the 69 percent reduction probably would not be achieved until about 2025.
"This federal approach is highly flawed and deficient," said STAPPA and ALAPCO's Executive Director, S. William Becker. "Even though effective pollution control technologies are available today, EPA would not require any mercury-specific pollution controls before 2018," said Becker, who added that "mercury hot spots could occur because power companies would be allowed to trade the right to pollute."
By contrast, the state and local model rule would require 90 to 95 percent control of mercury by 2012. Companies would not be permitted to trade emissions with each other or to bank them.
The model rule also provides several options for companies to achieve a targeted 80 percent interim reduction of mercury by 2008. The air pollution officials cite studies that have shown such effective cleanup could be achieved without reducing coal use and with minimal impact on monthly electric bills. "The model rule would protect public health by using
technologies that are available and rapidly entering the commercial market," said Terrill. "It is aimed at providing state and local governments with the tools needed to deal with this dangerous poison," he added.
"Now under litigation, the federal mercury rule provides no guarantee that mercury pollution will be reduced from power companies," observed the National Wildlife Federation. "If properly implemented, the federal Clean Air Act would have cut mercury pollution by up to 90 percent by 2010."
The EPA defends its Clean Air Mercury Rule, saying that the cap-and-trade approach will achieve "significant mercury emission reductions while providing flexibility for plant managers to meet the final emission limits."
The Clean Air Mercury Rule establishes "standards of performance" limiting mercury emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants and creates a market based cap-and-trade program that will reduce nationwide utility emissions of mercury in two phases.
The first phase cap is 38 tons and emissions will be reduced by taking advantage of co-benefit reductions - that is, mercury reductions achieved by reducing sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions under the EPA's Clean Air Interstate Rule.
In the second phase, due in 2018, coal-fired power plants will be subject to a second cap, which will reduce emissions to 15 tons upon full implementation. On October 21, in response to petitions for reconsideration of the the EPA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to reconsider certain aspects of its final Clean Air Mercury Rule.
After issuing the final rule, the EPA Administrator received four petitions for reconsideration.
One submitted by 14 states: New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
One submitted by five environmental groups: the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Clean Air Task Force, the Ohio Environmental Council, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and the Natural Resources Council of Maine. One submitted by the Jamestown Board of Public Utilities. One submitted by the Integrated Waste Service Association.
The EPA has agreed to reconsider seven aspects of the final rule: The method used to apportion the national caps to individual states; The definition of "designated pollutant;" EPA's subcategorization for new subbituminous coal-fired units subject to New Source Performance standards (NSPS); The statistical analysis used for the NSPS; The highest annual average mercury content used to derive the NSPS; The definition of covered units as including municipal waste combustors; and The definition of covered units as including some industrial boilers.
The EPA says its "extensive" analyses of mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and subsequent regional patterns of deposition to U.S. waters showed that regional transport of mercury emission from coal-fired power plants in the United States is responsible for very little of the mercury in U.S. waters. "That small contribution will be significantly reduced after EPA's Clean Air Interstate Rule and Clean Air Mercury Rule are implemented," the agency says.
In addition to the 45 day comment period, the EPA will hold a public hearing on Thursday at the agency's offices in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. To register to speak at this public hearing contact Pamela Garrett of EPA's Office of Air Quality Planning & Standards at 919-541-7966 or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org at least two days in advance of the hearing - that's today.