If you think things could get any more troubling in Congress, think again.
The House approved a bill (H.R. 4402) last week to exempt the mining industry from environmental review. Cloaked as a bill about increasing production of strategic minerals, this legislation is actually about ignoring the serious impacts that mining can have on public health, clean water and taxpayers.
It will exclude mines from one of our most important environmental laws that requires a thorough environmental impact study.
The mining industry already enjoys free and open access to hard-rock minerals on public lands — minerals they receive for free (no royalties) under the antiquated 1872 Mining Law. In addition, federal law already prioritizes mining as “the highest and best use” of public land.
Yet, this bill proposes to go one step further and allow the agencies to exempt major mine operations from the federal environmental review process — the National Environmental Policy Act. This is the law that requires agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to evaluate the impacts of a mine proposal, and take that information into consideration in the permitting process.
The environmental impact statement is a crucial part of permitting because it allows the public to comment on the project, and those comments frequently result in mitigation measures that reduce impacts and conflicts.
There’s no denying that major mines have severe impacts. Take the Zortman Landusky mine in Montana, which has polluted a dozen streams in the Little Rockies and will require expensive, taxpayer-funded water treatment in perpetuity.
Consider the Formosa mine in Oregon, where over 18 miles of salmon streams are contaminated with toxic metals, or the Jerritt Canyon here in Nevada, which was the largest source of mercury air pollution in the U.S. for years. We already have many legacy sites in Nevada, such as the disastrous Paradise Peak mine, which contains a dangerous pit lake and large amounts of unreclaimed waste rock dumps and a tailings impoundment that require long-term management.
The mining industry claims that the permitting process should be streamlined to expedite mining. Yet, the federal government already has the authority to fast-track a permit if impacts are minimal.
This is an extreme and unnecessary bill that simply benefits the mining industry over public health and protection. The environmental review process is essential to ensuring that mining corporations operate responsibly. Nevada has a very strong mining industry, and has existed under NEPA review and is doing fine. There is simply no reason to exempt mining from a thorough environmental analysis.
Glenn Miller is a member of the Board of Earthworks and Great Basin Mine Watch, and a professor of environmental science at the University of Nevada, Reno.