Interior Department poised to adopt new mining rules

Posted: Sunday, October 15, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The Interior Department is poised to adopt new mining rules designed to better protect the environment on public lands.

The regulations, the first major revision in 20 years, will require miners to post bigger financial guarantees to cover cleanup costs, allow the Bureau of Land Management to deny mine permits, and establish tighter environmental standards for mining operations, according to the Mineral Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group.

The mining industry said it expects to fight the new regulations.

''It's quite likely we'll appeal,'' said Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association.

BLM spokesman Ed Bovy would not comment, preferring to wait until after the regulations are made public.

The new regulations would update 1981 guidelines established under James Watt, interior secretary in the Reagan administration. The two-decade-old rules were the BLM's first major attempt to regulate mining since enactment of the 1872 hard-rock mining law.

''There were no mining regulations on federal land prior to 1981,'' said Alan Septoff, campaign director for the Mineral Policy Center. As a result the United States has more than 500,000 abandoned and unreclaimed mines, he said.

The use of cyanide to separate gold from the rock has increased in the last 40 years, and with it public concern over the health effects on humans, fish and migratory birds. In 1980, about two-thirds of all the gold mined in the United States was produced using cyanide, a highly toxic substance. Three years ago, virtually all U.S. gold production involved cyanide, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Tighter standards are also needed because mines using cyanide leaching often disturb large areas, create big pits and waste rock piles and use a lot of water, the BLM said in documents explaining the proposed rules.

The BLM also wants operators to produce bigger bonds so that taxpayers don't end up paying to clean up old mine sites.

At the Summitville mine in Colorado, where the owner went bankrupt, the public was left with a cleanup bill likely to exceed $100 million, according to the BLM. In Ester, Alaska, road damage from an abandoned placer mine is expected to cost at least $9.5 million because the operator, Yellow Eagle, a Canadian mining company, has no known assets and the state bond pool contains less than $1 million.

In Alaska, the new rules would likely have the greatest impact on placer miners because most of the state's large mines sit on private land. Most of the placer mines are on BLM property and are mom and pop-type operations that currently aren't required to post reclamation bonds, Borell said.

Higher costs of doing business combined with low gold prices could drive many people away from mining, he said.

''It'll deter those in it from staying in and keep new people from trying it,'' Borell said.

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