Congress’s mining rider would put us in the hole

In 2015, polluted water spilled out of the Gold King mine turning the Animas River — the lifeblood of La Plata County — a toxic orange. The recovery has begun, but it is a slow process; the cost of cleanup is difficult to predict, but will be in the millions.

La Plata County is not alone. Too often mines leave behind devastation that taxpayers must pay for and communities must endure. The hardrock mining industry is the country’s largest source of toxic pollution, according to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.

Nevertheless, some in Congress are trying to weaken already flimsy oversight of hardrock mining. Last week the House of Representatives added a controversial rider to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 that redefines so-called “critical minerals” to include everything from sand and gravel for construction to gold and silver for jewelry.

Why does this matter?

Any mining company that wants to dig up a “critical” mineral would enjoy an expedited permitting process: less public input, weakened environmental oversight.

This amendment was slipped into the unrelated, must-past bill with no opportunity for voters to have their say: a closed-door process to slam the door in the face of Americans who merely want to weigh in on decisions that will affect their families and communities.

If this misguided proposal becomes law, we will have dispensed with any pretense of accountability and transparency for the hardrock mining industry.

House Republicans are using the guise of national security to gut bedrock environmental laws. When you strip away the flag-waving rhetoric, you’re left with the claim that fast-tracking permits for domestic mines will make the United States less reliant on foreign countries.

It’s bogus.

The Critical and Strategic Materials Defense Stockpiling Act already identifies and stockpiles materials critical for national security. And the free market for these minerals allows supply to meet demand.

Besides, the United States is already mining-friendly, according to the industry itself. The Fraser Institute’s 2016 Annual Survey of Mining Companies named Nevada and Arizona among the world’s “Top 10 Most Attractive Jurisdictions for Mining Investment.” And a report from the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that mine permitting takes an average of two years — similar to other major developed countries. Delays in the process are primarily due to mining companies, not the government.

Yes, we need to change U.S. mining policy, but not to loosen oversight. The General Mining Law that governs today’s mining industry was signed into law in 1872, when miners worked with hammer and chisel — a far cry from the modern mines that can decimate entire watersheds.

It’s time the burden was placed where it belongs: on the mining companies responsible for the pollution. The public and the environment have paid the price for too long. The EPA estimates the cost to clean up America’s hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines at over $50 billion — a sum far in excess of the entire annual Superfund budget.

Fortunately, there are members of Congress, including Colorado’s own Sen. Michael Bennet, that recognize the need for a mining law that puts taxpayers and communities before foreign mining companies. Under the 1872 law, mining is considered the “highest and best use” of public land. Bennet has joined Sen. Tom Udall to craft a bill that would balance industrial-scale mining with other important land uses, such as water supplies, conservation, recreation and renewable energy development.

There are communities all across the country that rely on their rivers the way we rely on the Animas. Our health and prosperity depends on clean water: we must exercise careful scrutiny of any proposal that might affect it. I trust Sens. Bennet and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., will step up, along with their colleagues, and help remove this dangerous rider from the defense bill. Then we can look to the future, and the long-overdue reform of the 1872 mining law.

Gwen Lachelt is serving her second term as La Plata County Commissioner. Before being elected, Lachelt served as founder and Director of Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project.

This article provided by NewsEdge.