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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mining Letter

Air Date: Week of

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Host Steve Curwood talks with Lexi Schultz, of the Mineral Policy Center, about a letter written to President Bush by more than a dozen Republicans. The representatives asked the President to keep in place stricter environmental regulations for the mining industry proposed by the Clinton Administration.


CURWOOD: Critics say since 1872, hard-rock mining companies in the West have gotten a sweet deal. They buy the land cheap, and leave their waste for others to clean. In January, President Clinton pushed through a rule reform for the industry, including the requirement that mining companies pay cleanup costs in advance. The Bush administration has suspended implementation of President Clinton's reforms, and is considering throwing them out. But fourteen Republican members of the House, led by Christopher Shays of Connecticut, recently wrote to the president, asking him to keep the Clinton regulations in place. Lexi Schultz is with the Mineral Policy Center, a group that advocates for mining reform. The organization advised Representative Shays in the drafting of the letter. Ms. Schultz joins us now. Ms. Schultz, what do the Clinton mining rules do?

SCHULTZ: These regulations are the only controls that we have to protect the environment from hard-rock mining. And the updated rules, that had not been re-written since 1980, before most modern and destructive hard-rock mining practices were in place. So, these rules were very, very important to clean water, to protecting public lands, and to helping to protect local communities from some of the devastating effects of hard-rock mining.

CURWOOD: Now, there was a similar letter that was sent to President Bush last month. It was signed by mostly Senate Democrats. Tell me, why is it that this most recent letter is signed only by House Republicans?

SCHULTZ: These fourteen Republicans who signed the letter, wanted to send President Bush the message that people in his own party care deeply about the environment, in general, and about this issue, protecting water and public lands from hard-rock mining, in particular. There were House Democrats who would have been happy to sign a letter such as this, but the moderate Republicans who signed this letter know that this is a unique time, when President Bush is listening to moderate Republicans in both the House and the Senate, and they wanted to send this as a very strong message that President Bush needs to re-think some of his anti-environmental policies.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the politics here. Do parties matter much here? Or is there something else that's going on?

SCHULTZ: This issue, hard-rock mining, is much more about the politics of the western Rocky Mountain states versus the rest of the country, as opposed to strictly being a Democrat versus Republican issue. There are some states where hard-rock mining is a very, very powerful interest, such as Nevada, such as Montana. There are other states where that is less so, and, as a matter of fact, there are Republicans who feel very strongly that hard-rock mining companies have gotten away with murder; they have shafted taxpayers and they have damaged the environment. And, in states where coal is a major player, many members of Congress support hard-rock mining law reforms, because the hard-rock mining industry gets away with a great deal more than the coal industry is allowed to. One example is that the coal industry has to pay a royalty for mining of public lands. The hard-rock mining industry doesn't have to pay anything, and it is the only industry that gets that kind of favorable treatment.

CURWOOD: President Bush has received this letter, but what do you think he's gotten, in terms of receiving the message? What's his reaction to this?

SCHULTZ : Well, there has not been a direct response from President Bush. Since this letter was sent, the Bureau of Land Management released a notice that they intend to keep at least one portion of the rules in place. The rules do three very important things. The first is to require mining companies to bear the costs of cleaning up abandoned mines. Right now, taxpayers often bear those burdens, and their liability could be a billion dollars, just from currently operating mines alone. The second thing that the rules do is put strong environmental protections in place to protect ground water and surface water from mining-specific pollution. And the third thing is to give federal land managers the right to say no to mines, in certain very, very particular circumstances, where there will be substantial irreparable harm to cultural or natural resources. Right now, there's no way for land managers to say no to a mine, even if they go outside a national park, or if they would destroy an archaeological site or destroy a town. The Bureau of Land Management last Friday said that they intend to keep the financial portion of the rule. That means that they will make mining companies bear the cost of their own cleanup. The trouble is that the Bureau of Land Management has not said anything about the other two, very important parts to this rule, and the implication is that they are still considering repealing those portions.

CURWOOD: Lexi Schultz is director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Mineral Policy Center in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for taking this time.

SCHULTZ: Thank you, very much.



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