Multinational Monitor

MAY 2001
VOL 22 No. 5


Rollback: The Corporate Regulatory Feeding Frenzy
Foreward by
Monitor Staff

Bush's Corporate Cabinet
by Charlie Cray

The Repetitive Motion Un-Rule
by Deborah Weinstock

Arsenic and Old Regs
by Lynn Thorp

The Roadless Tramelled
by Ned Daly

Bankrupt Policies
by Jake Lewis

Bush’s Hot Air
by Phil Radford

Mining Their Own Business
by Charlie Cray

Defending Contractor Irresponsibility
by Robert Weissman

A Regulatory Accident in the Making
by Charlie Cray

Cheney and Halliburton: Go Where the Oil Is
by Kenny Bruno
and Jim Valette


The Politics and Law of Worker Rights
an interview with
William Gould


Behind the Lines

Challenging the Oiligarchy

The Front
Medical Privacy, For Now

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Mining Their Own Business

by Charlie Cray

In late March, Gale Norton’s Interior Department moved to gut updated mining regulations that went into effect at the end of the Clinton administration.

The surface mining regulations govern mining on land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). They first went into effect in 1981, before widespread use of modern technologies made it profitable to extract tiny bits of metals such as gold from huge amounts of rock by using cyanide leaching and other toxic processes.

The updated regulations were an attempt to fix major deficiencies in the old rules. Under the old rules, bonding requirements were extremely weak; companies regularly got by with mere promises to pay in lieu of actually putting up money for post-closure cleanup. Bankruptcies also make it difficult for regulators to nail down liable parties to recoup cleanup funds.

In addition, land managers operated as if they did not have the authority to deny a mine. Finally, the old rules contained no meaningful environmental protection standards.

At some gold mining operations, it takes between 60 to 100 tons of rock to yield one ounce of gold. The results are huge open pits and a toxic legacy of taxpayer-funded cleanups.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 40 percent of the headwaters of all western U.S. watersheds are polluted by mining wastes. A 2000 National Wildlife Federation report shows that taxpayers could be stuck with approximately $1 billion in cleanup costs at today’s hardrock mines.

The new rules issued by BLM in January would have corrected many of these problems. They establish environmental performance standards that better protect ground and surface water, and they require mining operators to post adequate cleanup funds before mining operations can begin, to guarantee that taxpayers do not foot the cleanup bill.

The new rules would also recognize BLM’s authority to refuse to allow mining in areas where it would cause “substantial irreparable harm” to environmental or cultural resources, including Native American sacred sites.

One potentially affected plan is slated for sleepy Yarnell, Arizona, where the Canadian multinational Bema Gold Corporation would like to locate a new mining operation within 500 feet of area homes. The new rules would have allowed BLM to reject the mine.

“The gold mine proposal would devastate our town,” says Don Newhouse of Yarnell. “The mine plan calls for 24-hour operations and extensive blasting,” which Newhouse says would also force some local residents from their homes because of flying rock. “Republicans are supposed to protect property rights. Apparently the only property rights that count are the property rights of multinational mining corporations.”

“This is like going back to the James Watt era of public-lands management,” says Stephen D’Esposito, president of the Mineral Policy Center.

As Colorado’s attorney general, Interior secretary Gale Norton (once a protegé of Watt at the Mountain States Legal Fund) witnessed firsthand the problems caused by weak regulations and irresponsible mining companies. Norton represented the state during the 1992 Summitville mine disaster in which a 17-mile stretch of the Alamosa River was rendered lifeless by cyanide and heavy metal poisoning. The Summitville disaster may ultimately end up costing taxpayers approximately $140 million in cleanup costs.

The National Mining Association’s John Grasser says the Bush administration hasn’t rolled back the rules at all, but opened them up for independent review by the National Academy of Sciences and other third-party organizations.

BLM says it is calling back the rules to try and garner more public comments. “People have raised concerns about the new rules on both policy and legal grounds. If there are legitimate issues which need to be addressed, we should do so sooner rather than later,” says acting BLM Director Nina Rose Hatfield.

“When they say the BLM needs more public comment, what they’re really saying is the BLM needs more comment from the mining industry,” says Mineral Policy Center spokesman Chris Cervini.

Cervini points out that the rules are already the result of an extensive four-year process and that thousands of public comments have already been logged. The rules have also survived five legislative riders and a challenge in federal court.

The National Mining Association also says the new rules would cost the industry $877 million and over 6,000 lost jobs. “This unlawful regulatory proposal represents (the Clinton administration’s) eleventh-hour effort to dismantle the domestic hardrock mining industry,” says NMA President Jack Gerard.

The new comment period runs through May 7, 2001. Conservation and taxpayer groups are unsure what the Bush administration’s move will be when the comment period ends, but many are skeptical the administration would take these actions without ultimately wanting to rescind the new rules in favor of the old.

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