After four frustrating years of cajoling Congress to reform the 1872 Mining Law that allows hard-rock mining on public lands, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has decided to see what he can do on his own. Recently he announced a task force that would investigate the ways the administration can prevent some of the environmental damages of mining, without changing the law.
"It is plainly no longer in the public
interest to wait for Congress to enact legislation that corrects
the remaining shortcomings' of mining regulations, Babbitt
While the task force will take several
years to change policy, Babbitt also released new bonding
requirements for all mines, effective
To the Washington, D.C.-based
Mineral Policy Center, which initially praised Babbitt's
administrative approach, the new rules are window dressing. Most
mines are already required to place bonds to ensure environmental
cleanup if they go out of business, says center staffer Susan
Brackett, and the new regulations leave bonding levels up to the
states. In the past, she points out, state levels have been set so
low that taxpayers were left with huge cleanup tabs, such as the
$100 million the Environmental Protection Agency has spent to clean
up Colorado's bankrupt Summitville Mine.
Department spokesman Hord Tipton counters that no state can set
adequate bond requirements for catastrophe. "No company could be
able to afford it," he says.
officials have remained quiet about the new bonding rule, but many
view Babbitt's new task force with trepidation. Says Chris Hayes,
attorney for several mining companies: "We don't know who is
working for him; we don't know what is proposed. It is a
significant policy change ... and should be made out in the open."
- Heather Abel