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White House Eases Land Rules for Miners

October 11, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration announced Friday that it would start allowing companies that mine gold, silver and other precious metals as much public land as they need to help them develop their claims.

The decision, a reinterpretation of the 1872 Mining Law, came in response to pressure from the mining industry and members of Congress in big mining states. They argued that because of the requirements of modern mining, it takes more space to work a standard 20-acre claim than the five acres allowed for "mill sites" in the 130-year-old law.

National Mining Assn. President Jack Gerard said the new policy "is good for jobs, mining communities and the American economy."

But environmental groups assailed the decision as the latest in a long string of actions by the Bush administration to roll back environmental protections.

Steve D'Esposito, who represents the environmental group Mineral Policy Center, called the decision an "open invitation to dump massive quantities of toxic mining waste on unlimited amounts of our public lands.... It puts clean water and community health at increased risk."

The 1872 law allows for five-acre "mill sites" for activities "ancillary" to mining standard 20-acre claims.

Starting in the late 1970s, mining companies expanded their operations to take advantage of new techniques, such as cyanide leaching, that make mining economical even when it takes several tons of ore to yield an ounce of gold. But the mining companies needed much more space for processing the ore and for dumping the leftover rock.

Concerned that government regulators were failing to restrict the size of mining sites, John Leshy, the Interior Department's solicitor in the Clinton administration, issued an opinion in 1997 stressing that only one five-acre mill site should be allowed for every 20-acre mineral claim.

The Bush administration's action overturns that decision. A legal opinion, released in Nevada on Friday evening, argued that the 1872 law does not limit how many five-acre mill sites could be granted along with a mining claim.

"The Mining Law has sufficient flexibility to allow for evolving mining practices and does not, at least in the mill site provision, impose rigid limitations that would make modern mining practices unworkable," states the opinion by Deputy Solicitor Roderick Walston.

Bush administration officials said the 1997 legal opinion played a role in the significant decline of metal mining on public lands in recent years. From 1999 to 2001, exploration dropped 57%, mine development 54% and metal mining jobs 22%, the Interior Department said.

"We believe the 1997 opinion had a chilling effect and contributed to a significant decline in exploration for new minerals and new mine development," said Rebecca Watson, assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management.

Members of Congress who had been pressing the administration for years to make the change were delighted with the announcement.

"I applaud President Bush's leadership, his actions to support Nevada's No. 2 industry and his commitment to strengthening our economy," said Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.).

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that the 1997 opinion had had "a disastrous effect on the mining industry" and that the Bush administration decision would help the industry.

"It doesn't make sense that only five acres of land should be allocated to provide facilities for every 20 acres of ore," Reid said. "That's like trying to pour a gallon of milk into a 10-ounce glass. It can't be done. Under those restrictions, new mineral resources cannot be developed on our public lands."

But Leshy, who now teaches at UC Hastings College of the Law, said the environment would suffer from increased pollution.

The decision is not likely to have much impact in California because recent state mining rules have made metal mining prohibitively expensive, environmentalists and industry officials said.

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