Bush administration reverses mining rule

Clinton policy affecting public lands is removed


WASHINGTON - The Bush administration reversed an 11th-hour Clinton administration ruling on mining policy yesterday, making it easier for companies to mine for gold, copper, zinc and lead on public lands.

It also issued a legal opinion that could clear the way for a Nevada company to dig an open-pit gold mine in a part of the California desert considered sacred by a local American Indian tribe.

Officials of the Bureau of Land Management said they were removing unduly burdensome provisions of the mining regulations. The mining industry blames what it says was a hostile and inhospitable attitude during the Clinton administration for a sharp drop in new mines in this country over the past decade and for forcing the industry overseas.

Environmentalists said the move gutted regulations protecting public lands and stood as a stark example of what they said was a Bush administration tilt toward industry at the expense of the environment.

The Clinton administration had given the interior secretary the ability to veto permits for mines on federal lands if the mine could cause "substantial and irreparable harm" to the community. In a rule to be published Tuesday and to go into effect Dec. 31, the Bush administration withdraws that veto power.

"Our solicitor has just issued a legal opinion that says denial of a mining permit on the grounds of substantial and irreparable harm is not legally supportable," Larry Finfer, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, told reporters yesterday.

Finfer defended the decision on three grounds. He said the Interior Department already had the authority to deny mining permits if the operation did not comply with laws regarding clean air and water. He said the public had not had time to comment on the Clinton policy, which went into effect the day before Clinton left office. And he said it was not fair to force a mining company to go through the lengthy permit process and then deny a permit on the basis of what he said was a subjective standard.

At the same time, Finter said, the bureau was retaining part of the Clinton rules - sought by environmentalists and endorsed by the mining industry - that required companies to be bonded so they pay all cleanup costs when they finish mining.

Jack Gerard, president of the National Mining Association, said the new regulations were "a tempering of the excesses that occurred in the previous administration."

Gerard said a decrease in expenditures on mining in the United States - the money spent for mineral development since 1993 dropped by 88 percent - meant that the nation was seven times more dependent on foreign sources for minerals.

"We hope this is a signal that we will stop that negative slide that has chilled the U.S. industry and has encouraged us to take our resources elsewhere," he said.

But environmentalists complained that the new rules essentially say that no mine can be denied because of its effect on the environment.

Lexi Shultz, legislative director of the Mineral Policy Center, a nonprofit environmental group in Washington, said the ruling was a "handshake with the industry" and a further subsidy of old mining laws that allow private companies "to take billions of dollars of valuable minerals out of public land for free without paying a royalty and without having to fully consider the damage that they leave behind."

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