Of the 262 million surface acres of land under the care of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), about 85% is potentially available for mining. According to the 1999 National Academy of Sciences report Hardrock Mining on Federal Lands, more than 157,000 acres are already being mined or are affected by active mining exploration. With the new year 2002 came new rules for mines that operate on public land overseen by the BLM.
These "3809 regulations"--which took effect on 31 December 2001 against vehement protests from environmental organizations such as the Mineral Policy Center and Great Basin Mine Watch--are a scaled-back version of rules signed in the last days of the Clinton administration. The new rules remove provisions that environmentalists say are vital for protecting air, water, wildlife, and such cultural resources as Native American sacred sites, but that industry groups say would cripple their ability to function.
The final Bush rules retain many aspects of the Clinton version. They regulate small exploratory operations of five acres or less that had been exempt under earlier rules. They require mines to control the discharge of cyanide, which is used to strip minute particles of metal from ore. They require mines to control acid mine drainage, a process in which the combination of water, air, specialized bacteria, and the sulfides found in some types of ore produce environmentally damaging acidic water. And they require mines--new or existing--to provide financial guarantees, or bonds, that cover the cost of reclamation (as estimated by BLM staff) after a mine closes.
But the Bush administration also removed several rules that were vital to protecting the environment, says Great Basin Mine Watch director Tom Myers. Missing, he says, are rules that addressed chronic mining problems: pollution such as increases in arsenic and mercury in surface and groundwater, and dewatering, the process in which groundwater levels are lowered to make mining possible. The new regulations do require that mining companies line their waste facilities, but, Myers says, "if there is a leak, the BLM can't go beyond requiring a liner to actually [requiring that mining companies] clean up the groundwater"--that's where other laws such as the Clean Water Act would presumably step …