The Environmental Agency has moved to rescind an Obama administration rule requiring hard rock mining operations to show they are financially able to absorb cleanup costs should their activities result in future pollution. The change will put the EPA's Superfund (read: taxpayers) back on the hook for funding the bill.
Last week Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, dropped the Obama-era rule, claiming modern mining practices, as well as other state and federal requirements, made the financial responsibility rule superfluous. “Additional financial assurance requirements are unnecessary and would impose an undue burden on this important sector of the American economy and rural America, where most of these mining jobs are based,” he said.
An inspiration for the Obama-era rule was the Zortman Landusky gold and silver mine that, after going bankrupt in 1998, was unable to fund the cleanup of its pollution. The bill for its cleanup continues to rise.
“Toxic pollution from the Zortman Landusky mine has contaminated nearly a dozen streams in the Little Rocky mountains and harmed the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes that live downstream,” Bonnie Gestring, a staffer withEarthworks, a member of the Western Mining Action Network, said.
“The draft rule, which was issued in December 2016, clearly documented that toxic and hazardous releases continue to occur, despite current mining practices,” Gestring said. “The Trump administration simply chose to ignore that data in making its decision to abandon these taxpayer protection regulations for mining.”
The regulation of hardrock mining was originally set and signed by President Ulysses Grant in 1872 and has changed little since.
“It’s time to end the antiquated sweetheart deal that hardrock mining companies have enjoyed for nearly 150 years,” [Senator Tom] Udall said in a statement in September. “Like oil, gas, and coal producers, mining companies need to pay their fair share, but because our mining laws date back to the Gold Rush era, it’s the taxpayers who are on the hook for cleaning up hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines that are poisoning our watersheds and threatening our communities.”
Pruitt's assertion that state laws make federal regulations redundant is not entire accurate, as activities related to spills are not always covered at the state level.
“These rules are essential because the liabilities covered by the EPA program – such as spills, natural resource damages and health risk assessments – are generally not covered by other state and federal land management financial assurance programs,” Gestring said. “Pruitt’s decision has nothing to do with toxic cleanup and everything to do with his industry-first agenda. It makes a mockery of Pruitt’s pledged prioritization of Superfund.”
Lexi Tuddenham, executive director of SMA, said that Pruitt's move is not in the best interest of taxpayers, in no small part because better mining practices do not fully alleviate risk.
“Human construction isn’t infallible. There’s always the possibility for leaks or misunderstandings of hydrology, and you always need to be able to do something about it as a very basic guarantee for human health and safety.”
Further, she questions the wisdom in failing to mitigate taxpayer burden on future risks when many communities continue to address past spills.
“We are certainly still dealing with cleanup from older mines,” she said. “There are companies looking to expand operations in our area, but we’re still dealing with damage from the past.”
Though the EPA would be stuck with cleanup if a company cannot afford it, its own funding is also at risk. Trump has proposed cutting the agency's budget by about $2.5 billion.