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Know the West

Mining reform gets the shaft


When then-secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt shepherded a new set of hard-rock mining regulations into law on Jan. 20, mining critics and reformers hoped the new rules would usher in an era of more environmentally responsible mining. But President Bush's inauguration brought a new cast of characters into the Interior Department. Faced with three pro-mining lawsuits, the Gale Norton-led agency announced a review of the new regulations on March 23 (HCN, 4/9/01: Republicans launch counteroffensive).

Now, the Department of Interior has decided to go forward with a watered-down version of the regulations.

"Babbitt gave it some teeth," says Roger Flynn of the Western Mineral Action Project (WMAP), "and Norton's taking the teeth away. It essentially goes back to the regulatory system that's been in place since 1980."

A crucial deletion was the "substantial irreparable harm" clause, which would have given the Bureau of Land Management the power to deny proposals that might cause serious damage to the environment or to cultural resources such as Indian sacred lands. That provision would have introduced an unwelcome level of uncertainty into what is already a risky and expensive process for mining companies, says Doug Hock, a spokesman for Newmont Mining Corp. "We're pleased it was removed."

Also gone are a number of "performance standards" which would have regulated mining's impacts on wildlife and groundwater supplies.

Under the new regulations, the BLM will still require all mine operators to post reclamation bonds before they begin work, says Great Basin Mine Watch's Tom Myers. But with a greatly reduced set of performance standards in the revised regulations, he says, the BLM won't be able to ensure adequate reclamation. The situation is compounded by the fact that the agency has dropped liability and civil penalty provisions that would have allowed the government to pursue individual mines' parent companies for reclamation costs, Myers says.

The new rule was published in the Federal Register Oct. 30 and is scheduled to go into effect Dec. 31. Roger Flynn says that WMAP, acting on behalf of several environmental groups, is filing a motion in federal district court to block the regulations from becoming law.