Petition seeks new mining regulations to prevent future disasters like the Animas River spill

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Drainage from the abandoned Pennsylvannia Mine in Summit County, Colorado, has been poisoning Peru Creek and the Snake River for decades, @bberwyn photo.

Common sense tweaks would require more monitoring as well as reclamation

Staff Report

FRISCO — Congress, under fierce lobbying pressure from the mining industry, may not have the political wherewithal to make meaningful changes to mining laws.

But public land agencies could tweak their regulations to reduce the chances of another event like the spill from the Gold King Mine that tainted the Animas and San Juan rivers earlier this month.

A coalition of community and environmental groups hopes to spur those changes at the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture with a formal petition under the Administrative Procedures Act. The petition seeks four key changes to mining rules that would go a long way toward averting future toxic spills.

The rules changes would:

  • Limit the lifetime of a mine permit,
  • Impose enforceable reclamation deadlines and groundwater monitoring requirements on mines
  • Require regular monitoring and inspections,
  • And limit the number of years that a mine can remain inactive.

“As a county with hundreds of abandoned mines affecting two headwaters rivers of the Colorado Basin, we really place a high importance on sustainable uses of our public lands and protecting water,” said Art Goodtimes, a commissioner in San Miguel County, Colorado.

“The proposed rules will help ensure that existing and inactive mines are reclaimed in a timely manner and the environment will be better protected than what happened with our San Juan County neighbors,” Goodtimes said.

“The Hualapai Tribe supports the petition to make long overdue changes to the mining regulations,” said Councilwoman Sherry Counts of the Hualapai Nation. “Indian tribes have always viewed themselves as stewards with an obligation to take care of the earth that has provided for them. The Animas disaster only accentuates the urgency for federal agencies and the mining industry to do a much better job of protecting our precious land, air, and water.”

The regulatory changes are a reasonable reaction to the Animas River spill, which showed clearly how historic mining activity threatens communities and the environment, said Anne Mariah Tapp, energy program director for the Grand Canyon Trust.

“The Animas River disaster must mark the end of the days where irresponsible mining threatens our region’s livable future,” Tapp said. “Our coalition’s petition provides the federal agencies with a reasonable path forward that will benefit western communities, taxpayers, water resources, and our most treasured landscapes.”

The petition was prompted in part by the potential threat of uranium mining to the Grand Canyon region, which are operating under environmental reviews and permits from the 1980s, with no requirements for groundwater monitoring once mining is complete.

Like the abandoned gold mine that spilled wastes into the Animas, old and new uranium mines must be addressed before they contaminate the Colorado River and its tributaries.

“The Havasupai Tribe supports this petition that will better protect our aboriginal homelands and the waters that flow into our canyon home,” says Rex Tilousi, Havasupai Tribal Chairman. “This petition is an important part of our decades-long fight to protect our tribal members, homeland, and sacred mountain Red Butte from toxic uranium mining contamination.”

Along with the threats posed by existing mines, there are hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines in the United States that pollute an estimated 40 percent of streams in the headwaters of western watersheds. Most of these toxic mines, including the Gold King Mine, exist because the 1872 Mining Law, still the law of the land, didn’t require cleanup.

“If we are serious about the protection of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River water resources, we need to call for change,” said Art Babbott, a county supervisor in Coconino County, Arizona. “Common sense reforms to the federal agencies’ mining regulations and the 1872 Mining Law serve the interests of healthy watersheds, strong regional economies, and having science –  as opposed to politics – guide our decision-making for mining on public lands.”

“For too long, the federal government has allowed our public lands to become toxic dumping grounds for mining corporations,” says Katie Davis, public lands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Federal agencies have the ability to start addressing the problems unfolding at existing mines now, without waiting for congressional action, to ensure better protection of public lands, water supplies and wildlife habitat.”

“We must act to prevent future disasters like the one that turned the Animas River orange,” says Earthworks’ Bonnie Gestring. “Our petition for stronger mining rules would help reform dangerous industry practices while we push to reform the 1872 Mining Law, which would fund the cleanup of the hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines that litter the West.”

Specifically, the petition seeks to limit the duration of approved plans of operations to 20 years, with the option to apply for 20-year renewals. It would also require new environmental studies for any mining operation that has been inoperative for 10 or more consecutive years and require the BLM and Forest Service to regularly inspect mining operations.

Mining operators would also regularly be required gather and disclose information regarding the status and conditions of those operations, during non-operational periods.

The changes would also impose deadlines for commencing and completing reclamation activities once a mining operation ceases, and impose long-term monitoring requirements for surface water and groundwater quality.

The petition was prepared by the Stanford Environmental Law Clinic and is supported by the Havasupai Tribe (Arizona), the Hualapai Tribe (Arizona), the Zuni Tribe (New Mexico), Coconino County (Arizona), and San Miguel County (Colorado), as well as more than a dozen national and regional environmental organizations including the Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, the Sierra Club, the Information Network For Responsible Mining, Uranium Watch and others, representing millions of people who treasure our public lands and waters.

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