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Bush Admin. sides with industry rather than with EPA (again)

[ The Bush Administration continues to pander to corporate interests against the better advice of science. Yes, Bush-appointee Gail Norton’s Interior Department is siding with Newmont Mining Company over the EPA. This is from the article below:

The Environmental Protection Agency, which has the most experience with mine cleanups but no direct authority over mining on federal lands, had argued fiercely that $33.5 million would be needed to prevent groundwater pollution, according to official records of the dispute.

The mining company countered that a fund of $408,000 would be sufficient.

In February, the Bureau of Land Management in the Interior Department gave its final approval to the project, requiring Newmont to set aside $408,000 in a trust fund and a $1 million bond that could be used to supplement the fund if periodic monitoring found that necessary.

The whole article is reprinted below. –doclalor ]

Mine’s Pollution Fund Is Focus of Federal Agencies’ Duel

New York Times, March 8, 2004

By FELICITY BARRINGER

ATTLE MOUNTAIN, Nev. — From the walls of a massive terraced pit in the barren mountains above this small desert town, microscopic specks of gold were harvested a dozen years ago and will soon be harvested again. With the mining comes the inevitable chemical consequence: rain and melting snow combine with newly exposed rock fragments to produce sulfuric acid.

The Newmont Mining Corporation, which wants to revive its operations here, has acknowledged that both the old and the new projects may produce enough acid to pollute the groundwater 100 to 10,000 years in the future, though Newmont executives say this is unlikely.

And so for the first time, the Interior Department is invoking new federal regulations and requiring Newmont, the world’s largest gold producer, to set money aside in a trust fund to pay for any pollution that surfaces, even when Newmont may no longer exist.

The fund is the first test of mining regulations overhauled by the Bush administration. And it is central to one of the biggest and least-known environmental battles within the administration.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which has the most experience with mine cleanups but no direct authority over mining on federal lands, had argued fiercely that $33.5 million would be needed to prevent groundwater pollution, according to official records of the dispute.

The mining company countered that a fund of $408,000 would be sufficient.

In February, the Bureau of Land Management in the Interior Department gave its final approval to the project, requiring Newmont to set aside $408,000 in a trust fund and a $1 million bond that could be used to supplement the fund if periodic monitoring found that necessary.

The fight between the agencies was in many ways a reflection of their history. The Environmental Protection Agency was born of the environmental movement’s rise in the early 1970’s. The Interior Department’s attitude toward mining was originally embodied in the Mining Law of 1872, which was intended to allow mining companies easy access to federal lands.

But mining has been an environmental byword for decades. “Historically, mining projects have resulted in the expenditure of billions of dollars by the government for environmental cleanups,” wrote Wayne Nastri, the San Francisco regional administrator of the environmental agency.

“E.P.A. believes the project will likely create a perpetual and significant acid mine drainage problem requiring mitigation for hundreds of years,” Mr. Nastri wrote at another point. Unless the Newmont trust fund was adequately financed, he argued, “the federal government would inherit an enormous financial burden.” Nationwide, mining companies have had a high closing rate, leaving suppurating sores in the landscape and no money to heal them.

The environmental agency’s arguments were disputed by the company and the Interior Department. The environmental agency abandoned its quest to get the larger amount of money, one longtime agency official said, because its officials believed that they could not prevail against the Interior Department.

Gail Givens, the assistant field manager at the Bureau of Land Management’s Battle Mountain office, said that Newmont’s prediction of perpetual groundwater pollution was a “worst-case scenario.” Should the worst case occur, he added, “our regulations allow us to adjust and make the proponent put in more money at any time.”

John Mudge, Newmont’s director of environmental affairs in North America, said the likelihood of any long-term pollution was small. “Every aspect of this operation has environmental protection built in,” he said. Long-term acid drainage, a staple of earlier generations of mines, is highly unlikely, he said, because of new, clean-as-you-go technologies.

Besides, the huge pit will produce pollution without any new mining, the company’s environmental statement predicted. The safeguards for the new operations would also catch the old pollution, Mr. Mudge said.

Northern Nevada, whose desolate expanses are the heartland of the country’s gold mining industry, accepts mining as a birthright, if not an honor. Before the rise of Las Vegas, mining was Nevada’s signature industry; if the state were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest gold producer. Newmont, a worldwide gold producer, is one of the biggest operators here and has done extensive reclamation work at nearby mine sites, which are now topped with artificial buttes from which sage is just beginning to sprout.

But productive mines, with 30-year life spans, no longer enlarge communities nor renew economic vitality here. When early construction on this project, called the Phoenix, is complete, the number of miners needed to move the tons of earth and leach out the tiny specks of gold will equal the number of miners who will have finished work at Newmont’s Lone Tree mine not far away.

So the spare mountains above Battle Mountain are empty, windy places, and the town beneath is sparsely populated.

The same climate and landscape that make the area hard to live in make it hard to predict environmental damage from mining. In January and February, snow can cover the surface mining sites, which are giant industrial complexes tucked into the mountains throughout the state. The melt-off can be slow or swift.

The Phoenix project’s environmental impact statement predicts the pollution, if unchecked, will seep into the groundwater and then into local streams and rivers about 60 years after the mine shuts down. It will peak 100 to 1,000 years after the mining begins, and will linger for 10,000 years or more, the company’s model predicted.

Tom Myers, the executive director of Great Basin Mine Watch, a Reno-based environmental group, argues that the model is too optimistic and does not include enough monitoring wells.

Newmont officials, however, said that their model probably exaggerated the impact.

They also argued that the cost of remediation and monitoring would rise slowly, as engineering efficiencies and technological advances trim construction costs and productivity gains trim labor costs. The E.P.A.’s overall cost estimates were triple those of the land management agency’s and Newmont’s.

Mr. Nastri also argued in his written comments that the financial assumptions underlying the trust fund — an annual pretax return of 9.8 percent, an annual inflation rate of 3.1 percent, Newmont’s continuing ability to pay taxes on the fund’s behalf — were unrealistic. Newmont’s current market capitalization is $7.3 billion; gold prices for the past few months have been at all-time highs.

Wilbur Lewellen, a professor of management at the Krannert School of Management at Purdue who specializes in long-term forecasting, said that the Bureau of Labor Management’s assumptions “don’t strike me as outrageous.”

The E.P.A., according to Mr. Givens of the land-management agency, erred by rating the Phoenix site as a future Superfund site, and “that’s not what we have here.” He added: “We don’t desire the taxpayer to clean up something done by private industry. The difference is in how we go about it.”

Mr. Mudge of Newmont said he believed “every aspect of this operation has environmental protection built in.”

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