Mining moves: EPA decision to drop Obama-era rule risks continuing a toxic pollution legacy

Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017 9:02 PM
Silverton-:Water flowing down the mountainside out of the Red and Bonita Mine in July 2013 contains high levals of manganese, zinc, copper, lead, Cadmium, aluminum, and iron that will make its way into Cement Creek that inhibits aquatic life and vegitation. Since about 2004 metal concentrations in Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River, have “easily doubled,” says Peter Butler of the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

Nearly one year into the Trump administration, it is impossible to say that one is shocked or surprised by any decision made by the president, or by his Cabinet. But it is entirely appropriate to declare how disappointing and unwise such a decision can be, as is the case with the Dec. 1 move by the Environmental Protection Agency to do away with an Obama-era rule requiring hard rock mining companies to prove they have the financial means to clean up mine and mill sites after production ends.

What Obama’s EPA viewed as a common-sense rule to guarantee that taxpayers would not be left to foot the bill for future mine cleanup was declared an onerous burden on the industry by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Unnecessary was Pruitt’s verdict because the rule would damage “an important sector of the American economy and rural America, where most of these jobs are based.” Unnecessary as well, industry advocates added, because modern mining practices, combined with permit regulations and bond requirements already in place, make the likelihood of abandoned-mine pollution problems small.

Yes, the Obama rule was going to force mining companies to ante up: an estimated $7.1 billion financial obligation for the industry, to be met by having to set aside some $171 million each year, according to an EPA analysis.

But some perspective is required: from 2010 until 2014 alone, the EPA spent $1.1 billion on cleaning up abandoned hard rock mining and milling sites across the country. Current EPA estimates put the costs to American taxpayers of cleaning up the existing backlog of thousands of abandoned, polluting mines – including the designated Superfund site near Silverton – at well over $50 billion.

That is largely the century-old legacy of mines operated and then abandoned long ago. Still, you will forgive us for not trusting to the industry’s good word that the toxic cycle won’t be repeated where mining is planned or currently underway.

While we view hard rock mining, done responsibly, as a legitimate component of Colorado’s economy, it is hard to view this move as anything other than crass pandering to mining industry objections and to President Donald Trump’s voter base. It is right in line with his February decision to lift another Obama mining provision, this one the Stream Protection Rule that prohibited coal mining companies from dumping mine waste into rivers and streams. The simplistic argument for that move was that the rule was an undue burden on coal producers, who out of economic necessity were going lay off workers as a result.

To counter Pruitt’s shortsighted move, environmental groups have responded predictably: “We’ll see them back in court,” said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks, one of the plaintiffs in the court case that helped generate the mining rule waived on Dec. 1.

There may be a better, Colorado-based remedy in a current push to require the same level of financial cleanup guarantees from mining companies operating in the state. A bill with that intent failed to receive the sponsors and support needed to move through the Legislature in 2016.

In light of this EPA decision, the time to reintroduce the legislation may be now.