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 said.


While the task force will take several years to change policy, Babbitt also released new bonding requirements for all mines, effective immediately.


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.


Interior 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.


Mining industry 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