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As 2010 draws to a close, I ve been thinking a lot about the great work the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been doing to try and regulate extractive industries in this country to protect communities and the environment. With the study on the impacts that hydraulic fracturing has on drinking water, and their plans to regulate mercury emissions from mining operations under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is attempting to move this country towards better regulated extraction. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but there is a lot that EPA can do to protect our water, air, land and public health in the coming months.

So, what can EPA do through the end of this year and into 2011 to continue this path toward better regulation?

First, the EPA can push for the strongest mercury regulations possible to regulate mining operations under the Clean Air Act. Mercury air emissions from mining have never been federally regulated, and the draft mercury rules issued by the EPA this spring would still allow 149 pounds of mercury per every million tons of ore processed for mines using autoclaves and roasters. This would allow the proposed Donlin Creek Mine in Alaska to potentially release more mercury in the air than all other industries in Alaska combined.

Second, the EPA can help shift the burden of mine clean up from the taxpayer (where it currently lies) to the industry, where it should be. By undertaking a rulemaking as part of our Superfund law to require mining companies to bond for the worst-case scenario clean up before they start mining, the EPA can end what is essentially a huge corporate giveaway. If we make mining companies internalize the costs of extraction, perhaps they will design mines in ways that go further to protect water and land.  

Third, the EPA can prohibit the dumping of mining waste into the waters of the United States. The intent of the Clean Water Act is to protect water from toxic waste, NOT encourage the destruction of lakes, wetlands, streams and rivers by turning them into mine waste dumps. We ve already lost Lower Slate Lake in Alaska, and countless streams and wetlands throughout the West. Let’s work to not lose anymore.

And last, but not least, the EPA needs to do something to make sure that communities know all of the toxic chemicals that are released in their backyard. Oil and gas production is currently exempt from our nation’s right-to-know law, and the hardrock mining industry has sued to exempt much of their waste from this law as well. EPA has the power to require disclosure of chemicals under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), and they should take any steps necessary to do so.

EPA will be under increased pressure from Congress next year, but they need to stand strong to fullfill their mission of protecting human health and safeguarding the natural environment. Communities facing extraction in their backyard are counting on them.