2001 Scorecard Vote
Today's mines for "hardrock" minerals, such as gold, silver, platinum and copper, often cover thousands of acres and descend hundreds of feet into the ground, generating mountains of toxic waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), almost half of the toxic pollution reported in the United States comes from hardrock mining, making the mining industry the nation's largest toxic polluter. The EPA also estimates that mining has polluted 40 percent of Western watersheds with substances such as arsenic and cyanide. Dozens of mining waste sites are on the Superfund list of the nation's most toxic sites, and cleanup costs could ultimately run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
In an effort to control this pollution, the Interior Department in January 2001 issued new regulations on hardrock mining. The product of four years of public comments and hearings, the new regulations represented a significant improvement over outdated 1980 regulations, which were drafted before the widespread use of enormous open-pit, chemical-process mining. Among other advantages, the new regulations:
- Established mining-specific environmental and cleanup standards to protect public lands, surface and ground water, wildlife habitat and surrounding communities;
- Required mining companies, rather than taxpayers, to foot the bill for cleanups;
- Gave the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) the right to deny permits for mines that would irreparably damage environmentally sensitive public lands.
Two months after the updated regulations were issued, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, citing industry concerns, proposed suspending the newly issued regulations and exploring alternatives including modification of the new regulations or a return to the 1980 regulations. During the 45-day public comment period on this proposal, the Interior Department received 49,000 comments--more than 45,000 in opposition to changing the new rules.
In response, Representatives Jay Inslee (D-WA) and Steve Horn (R-CA) offered an amendment to H.R. 2217, the Fiscal Year 2002 House Interior Appropriations bill, to block the Interior Department from rolling back the newly issued regulations. On June 21, 2001, the House of Representatives approved the amendment by a 216-194 vote (House roll call vote 182). YES is the pro-environment vote.
The Senate, however, did not include a similar amendment, and the Inslee-Horn language was stripped from the final Interior appropriations bill in conference. On October 31, 2001, the Interior Department released new mining regulations that removed the cleanup standards from the rule, eliminated the BLM's authority to block environmentally damaging mines and gutted mining-specific environmental standards. While the regulations retained a provision requiring mining companies to pay the full costs of cleanup, that provision was significantly weakened by the removal of any standards to evaluate that cleanup.