Bush administration overturns Clinton mining environmental regulations

The US Government’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has announced that it is to modify a Clinton era rule governing surface mining of gold, copper, zinc and lead on public lands which, the department says, will better protect the environment, although the plan’s opponents claim it will open the door to greater environmental degradation.

The amendment to the rules removes what the BLM describes as several unduly burdensome provisions, including one which provides power to the Interior Secretary to veto permits for mines that have the potential to cause substantial irreparable harm to local communities on the 260 million acres of land in the western states for which the BLM is responsible.

“This final rule will safeguard our environment while continuing to ensure a reliable and affordable supply of minerals that are important to our economy and security,” said BLM Acting Director Nina Rose Hatfield. “The approach that we are taking today reflects the support that exists for the current rule’s framework, while addressing the significant concerns that have been raised regarding the unnecessary burdens imposed by that rule.”

According to Hatfield, the revised regulations achieve three fundamental objectives:

  • protection of public health, public land resources, and the environment;
  • assurance that mining operators, rather than the nation’s taxpayers, bear the costs of reclaiming mined lands; and
  • ensuring reliabile supply of strategic minerals.

“From the information released by the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management today, it appears these modest revisions will bring us a step closer to achieving consistency with the balanced and scientifically-based recommendations prescribed by the National Academy of Sciences,” said Jack Gerard, President and CEO of the National Mining Association. The National Academy of Sciences’ (NAS) study established a clear benchmark for appropriate environmental protection regulation, said Gerard.

However, although improvements to the regulation of mining that were highlighted in the study includes the need to increase the speed and fairness of the permitting system for mining on federal lands, the main focus of the study’s recommendations is for a tightening up of environmental protection. The report, which was written in response to a request by Congress, emphasises the need to implement existing regulations which, as well as increasing environmental protection, would also improve the regulatory process, says the NAS. The Academy states that it was continuously frustrated by the lack of reliable information regarding mining on federal land, and says that in a number of regions the BLM requires more staff, and in general, there should also be more training available to staff, and that the BLM should make more information available to the public which should be regularly updated.

Needless to say, local tribes and environmental organisations are distressed at the BLM’s decision, particularly with regard to a plan for an open pit gold mine in a part of the Californian desert regarded as sacred by the local Quechan tribe, which is likely to be permitted under the new regulations.

However, the mining industry states that environmental issues are important. “This action … in no way diminishes the rigorous environmental scrutiny required of each mining project,” said Gerard. “Today’s modern mining companies are deeply committed to the environment. The industry supports implementing the recommendations of the NAS, and reforming the General Mining Law. We know first-hand that responsible natural resources development and environmental protection can go hand in hand.”

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