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Conservation In Mind – Country needs to protect public lands

By Frances Lamberts

A judicial decision and legislative efforts regarding the public lands can offer much encouragement to the conservation minded.

A federal court judge last year ruled to protect public lands from mining waste. A Canadian company, planning to open a copper mine on land it owns, had planned to dump almost 2 billion tons of waste rock and mining tails that would result, on 2,500 acres in the Coronado National Forest which its land adjoins.

The U.S. Forest Service, under long-established interpretation of the General Mining Act of 1872, had granted approval for the disposal in June 2017. But Native tribes and some environmental groups had brought suit over issues involving groundwater supplies, surface water pollution and impacts to wildlife habitat and several endangered species.

For quite some time, analyses by the Environmental Protection Agency had shown mining operations under the 1872 law to be responsible for widespread pollution of the headwaters of western rivers, and for leaving behind some half-million abandoned sites, the taxpayer cleanup cost for them surpassing $50 billion.

Judge James Soto, calling the permit-approval “arbitrary and capricious,” held it to undermine the findings of the Environmental Impact Statement that had been conducted and to ignore the severe impacts the project would have on surrounding streams. His ruling had come in the nick of time before the company planned to commence land-clearing for the mining.

Although without mention, reportedly, as to their legal grounds, the company and the U.S. Justice Department are appealing Judge Soto’s decision. Yet it also sparked a promising effort in Congress to overhaul the 150-year-old law, under which companies pay no royalties for extraction of ore from the public lands.

A Hardrock Leasing and Reclamation Act of 2019, introduced in both the House and Senate, will require the mining companies to meet some of the same standards that already apply to oil, gas, and coal development on public lands. For the first time, they will need to pay royalties on the ore extracted. Tribal lands and sacred sites would be exempt from this mining, as would be the national parks. The bill would establish bonding requirements and a remediation fund, into which the companies would pay.

Truly, as its sponsors say, the bill would “bring mining activity on public lands into the 21st century.” It would surely find hearty approval from an earlier President, Theodore Roosevelt, the original founder of many of them.