MAC: Mines and Communities

Summary of part of "Rewriting the Rules", a Report of the Majority staff ofthe Committee o

Published by MAC on 2001-05-01

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.

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