Placer miners wary of new federal regulations

Posted: Wednesday, January 17, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska's small placer miners are expressing concerns about some new federal regulations designed to protect the environment on public lands.

Steve Borrell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, said the rules could put many of them out of business.

The new regulations take effect Saturday. They require operation plans for smaller mines than before. They also call for posting clean-up money at all mining sites.

The regulations empower federal regulators to close any mines they consider uneconomic, Borrell said.

''We're talking about people where the screws have been tightened for 25 years. Will this be what pushes them out of business? For some, the answer is yes,'' Borell told the Anchorage Daily News.

The Alaska Miners Association intends to file a federal lawsuit in the coming weeks to block the changes, he said.

The regulations will be administered by the Bureau of Land Management which oversees huge areas of federal public land.

The new rules are the first broad, fundamental changes to federal mining law in 20 years, the BLM said.

Federal officials were calling the rules an overdue update for lax environmental regulations.

Of particular concern for small miners, the new regulations require that they submit detailed plans for work on mines of five acres or less. Under current regulations, such small mines do not have to submit development plans. Small mine operators also do not have to post bond money for site clean-up -- something that also changes.

The assessment work to determine bond size could cost several thousand dollars, Borell said. Since 1992, Alaska's small miners have pooled their money to meet the state bonding obligation. Under the new regulations, that pooling arrangement may be invalid, he said.

Borell said small miners cannot meet requirements to get bonds independently.

''If you can't get a bond, you're out of business,'' he said.

But the BLM points to some costly environmental problems, where taxpayers were left holding the tab.

At the huge Summitville gold mine in Colorado, the owner went bankrupt. The public was left with a cleanup bill likely to exceed $100 million, the BLM said.

BLM spokesman Ed Bovy said Tuesday the agency was working with the state and miners to try and salvage the bonding pool most Alaska miners use to meet federal requirements.

But even if the bonding pool can be used, it may not be enough to cover costly clean ups.

In Ester, road damage from an abandoned placer mine is expected to cost at least $9.5 million because the operator, the Canadian mining company Yellow Eagle, has no known assets and the state bonding pool has less than $1 million.

Borell said another change in the regulations could harm Alaska miners. Under new regulations, BLM officials will review the economic viability of mines on some federal land. If the BLM review determines the mines are not viable, then operation permits could be denied, Borell said.

Only mines on federal land closed to new operations -- so-called withdrawn land -- will be subject to the review, Borell said.

The economic-viability review could affect mines in withdrawn land along the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline near Fairbanks and Coldfoot and along the Forty Mile River and the Koyukuk River, he said.

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