Date: Sept. 29, 1999
Contacts: Vanee Vines, Media Relations Associate
Molly Galvin, Media Relations Officer
David Schneier, Media Relations Assistant
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Action Needed to Improve Effectiveness of Laws
That Govern Mineral Mining on Federal Lands

WASHINGTON -- Although the regulations that govern mining of mineral deposits on federal land are generally effective in protecting the environment, they are applied unevenly and, in some cases, inexpertly, says a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies. More needs to be done to bolster the way so-called "hardrock" mining regulations are implemented, and some regulatory gaps need to be addressed.

"Changes in mining technology, regulatory practices, mineral prices, and socioeconomic conditions, as well as increased concern over environmental protection, all have converged to pose profound challenges for federal land managers," said Perry R. Hagenstein, independent consultant and chair of the committee that prepared the report. "What's needed now is explicit action to ensure that current regulations work as they are supposed to and that any existing regulatory gaps are filled."

The committee emphasized that a one-size-fits-all solution would be impractical because of the diversity of mining circumstances. In fact, the complex nature of the overall regulatory structure, comprising a mix of state and federal laws, reflects the way mineral distribution across the states varies – leading to different mining activities. Copper mining in one area may present a different set of environmental concerns from those posed by gold mining in another, for example. Environmental-impact reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act provide the kind of site-specific approach that should be taken.

More than one-third of the total area of the nation's 12 western states, including Alaska, is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Most of this land is available for mining gold, silver, copper, and other hardrock minerals under the General Mining Law of 1872. Only a very small percentage of this land is actively mined, but the effects of these activities on water quality, vegetation, wildlife habitats, and scenic areas can extend well beyond the mine itself.

When the BLM recently began to pursue regulatory changes, Congress asked the National Research Council to review existing rules to determine how well they protect the environment. The 13-member committee appointed by the Research Council held public forums and visited several western mines as part of its research.

Working with Existing Laws

Better implementation of existing laws and regulations presents the greatest opportunity for improving environmental protection and regulatory efficiency. But federal land managers will need a better system to track compliance, the committee said, adding that "without more and better information, it is difficult to manage federal lands properly and assure the public that its interests are protected."

The committee urged the BLM and Forest Service to maintain an information management system that effectively tracks mining companies' compliance with operating plans and environmental permits, and to communicate this information to agency managers, the public, and other stakeholders. The report also calls for a more efficient process to review new mining proposals and to issue permits.

On the whole, the government needs to do a better job of bringing all relevant agencies and interest groups together to discuss concerns about the environmental impact of proposed mining projects before operating permits are granted, the report says. Furthermore, it should expedite permit approval or denial based on a comprehensive yet flexible evaluation process. All federal and state agencies with jurisdiction over mining operations or natural resources should be required to cooperate in the permit-review process from the earliest stages. The current method of conducting environmental reviews and issuing permits is often cumbersome and unpredictable, and may drag on for years -- draining staff time and diverting other resources from federal land-management agencies while providing less-than-optimal environmental protection.

Filling Gaps

While current regulations, if effectively implemented, stand to improve environmental protection and regulatory efficiency, the committee did identify several gaps in existing regulations that need to be filled.

Under the current system, for example, federal law requires hardrock mining operations to provide bonding or other financial assurance for anticipated environmental cleanup of most mining activities on federal land. But the BLM does not require such financial assurances for some mining activities that disturb fewer than 5 acres.

To correct such inconsistencies, the committee recommended that all but "casual use" mining operations be required to provide bonding or other financial assurance for eventual cleanup needs. (Casual-use activities are those that do not involve using mechanical equipment to move earth.) Mining and milling operators whose projects go beyond casual use also should submit operating plans in advance. Both measures should apply even to small mining operations that exceed casual use on fewer than 5 acres, because they, as well as larger ones, can have substantial environmental impact. The BLM now exempts these operations from requirements to submit plans or provide financial assurances for cleanup in advance; the Forest Service does not.

Another area that demands action, the committee said, involves the way agencies handle temporary mine closures. Because of economic factors such as fluctuating mineral prices, mine operators often decide to close a facility temporarily. But critics have charged that some operators avoid cleanup obligations by saying that their permanently closed facilities are only "temporarily" shut down.

Because neither federal agency specifically regulates temporary closures, both should adopt rules that spell out conditions under which mines may fall into that category, the committee said. Both agencies also should require operators to file interim management plans for temporarily inactive mines. And they should define the conditions that trigger a genuinely permanent closure. Likewise, the BLM and Forest Service should create guidelines to address long-term management and financial needs of closed mines -- such as sufficient staff to monitor waste-control measures -- at the time that mining companies first seek approval of operating plans.

To be effective, rules and procedures must be supported by appropriate enforcement authority. However, neither BLM nor the Forest Service have strong enforcement capability, the committee noted. Most notably, some land-management offices have reported that they have too few people to conduct inspections or review mining proposals. And although federal land managers can issue notices of noncompliance to mine operators who allegedly violate rules, administrators must rely on the courts to compel them to respond.

Both agencies should have direct authority to assess penalties on those who violate regulatory requirements, the committee said. Furthermore, the agencies should establish consistent procedures for referring alleged violators to other federal and state environmental-protection authorities.

Need for Sound Science

To ensure adequate environmental protection at hardrock mining sites, Congress should fund an aggressive and coordinated research program, the committee said. Any successful environmental protection must be based on sound science, yet the committee pointed out that in the case of hardrock mining, "the science base is far from complete." A broadly coordinated, national research effort is needed, in large part to create improved methods for predicting, measuring, and mitigating environmental impacts.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior. A committee roster follows. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit organization that provides advice on science and technology under a congressional charter.

Read the full text of Hardrock Mining on Federal Lands for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources

Committee on Hardrock Mining on Federal Lands

Perry R. Hagenstein (chair)
Independent Consultant on Natural Resources Policy, Economics, and Management
Wayland, Mass.

Samuel S. Adams (vice chair)
Independent Minerals Consultant
Lincoln, N.H.

Anne C. Baldrige
Independent Consultant
Denver, Colo.

Paul B. Barton Jr.1
Geologist Emeritus
U.S. Geological Survey
Reston, Va.

Edwin H. Clark II
Clean Sites Inc.
Washington, D.C.

Donald W. Gentry2
President and Chief Executive Officer
PolyMet Mining Corp.
Golden, Colo.

Raymond E. Krauss
Independent Environmental Planning and Resource Management Consultant
Santa Rosa, Calif.

Ann S. Maest
Vice President
Buka Environmental
Boulder, Colo.

James M. McElfish Jr.
Senior Attorney and Director
Mining Center
Environmental Law Institute
Washington, D.C.

Duncan T. Patten
Professor Emeritus of Plant Biology
Arizona State University
Tempe, and
Adjunct Research Professor
Montana State University

Jonathan G. Price
State Geologist and Director
Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology

Richard E. Reavis
Former Deputy Administrator for Air, Water, and Mining Programs
Nevada Division of Environmental Protection
Carson City

Donald D. Runnells
Senior Technical Adviser
Shepherd Miller Inc.
Fort Collins, Colo.


Craig M. Schiffries
(through August 1999)

Gregory H. Symmes

1 Member, National Academy of Sciences
2 Member, National Academy of Engineering