We’ve been waiting a long time for this. It was eight years ago at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that we published the most comprehensive and probing journalistic analysis to date of the General Mining Law of 1872.
A major point of our investigation was that the federal government was failing to require mining companies to post bonds ensuring their environmental damage would be cleaned up if they went bankrupt. We reported that hundreds of millions already had been required of taxpayers to clean up the messes of firms that went toes-up in the notoriously cyclical mining business, which nowadays often grinds entire hillsides to dust and doses them with cyanide to recover low concentrations of gold interspersed in the rock.
After our series ran, the Bush Administration basically yawned. And then, prodded by the mining industry, the administration moved to make things even easier for mining firms, undoing some of the work done by the Clinton administration to try to rein in the damage.
And there things stood for quite some time — except the damage mounted. The most prominent example was the bankruptcy of Asarco, which left behind more than 90 Superfund sites in 21 states with a cleanup cost of $1 billion.
Now comes news that the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection
Agency is going to make the mining companies post bonds that will guarantee cleanup costs if a firm doesn’t make it financially. It’s a new proposal, which came out under legal pressure from enviros, to amend the regulations governing the Superfund program.
Jan Hasselman, an attorney for the Earthjustice law firm who represents the Sierra Club and environmental groups in New Mexico, Idaho and Nevada, welcomed the EPA move:
Without financial assurance regulations, mine operators have walked away from sites contaminated with cyanide, lead, arsenic, mercury and other toxins. EPA has taken an important first step towards correcting this longstanding environmental problem while saving taxpayers billions of dollars at the same time.
Predictably, perhaps, the National Mining Association does not agree. President and CEO Hal Quinn said the agency erred in using the Toxic Release Inventory to gauge damage, and also ignored state and other federal laws that require mine owners to assure their messes will be cleared up. Said Quinn:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ignored critical facts and used inappropriate data in singling out U.S. hardrock mining for financial assurance requirements under Superfund.
For more on the NMA’s position, go here and look at the July 13 item. Sorry, the NMA site doesn’t provide a linkable URL.