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Lawsuit Filed to Overturn Public Land Mining Regulations

Joint release:
EARTHWORKS * Save the Scenic Santa Ritas * High Country Citizens' * Great Basin Resource Watch * Western Mining Action Project * Western Shoshone Defense Project

WASHINGTON, D.C., October 20— A coalition of conservation and Native American organizations today filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington, D.C. challenging two regulations issued by the Bush Administration that weakened the requirements for environmental and taxpayer protections on federal public land involved in mining operations.

The Bush regulations overturned previous regulations and policies that had limited the dumping of mine waste to what was strictly allowed by federal mining and public land laws. These Bush-era policies allow multinational mining companies unlimited amounts of public land to dump toxic mine waste and tailings from large-scale industrial mining operations. The challenged regulation, first issued in 2003, reinterpreted what is known as the “millsite provision” of the 1872 Mining Law.

The other challenged regulation, issued in the waning days of the Bush Administration in December, 2008, had reversed a legal ruling that required the payment of “fair market value” for the use of public lands not specifically protected by valid mining and millsite claims. Here, the new regulation ignored a ruling from the federal court in Washington in 2003, which ordered the Interior Department to issue regulations so that mining companies would have to compensate the public for the use of public lands. Instead, the new regulation eliminates the mining industry's obligations to pay fair market value.

Large-scale mining operations, proposed across the western public lands, are taking advantage of these relaxed restrictions on mining. “Giving away rights to public land to multinational mining corporations at the expense of our precious groundwater and a healthy environment not only doesn't make sense, its against the law,” said Gayle Hartmann, of the Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, a citizens group in Tucson, Arizona that is fighting to protect the canyons and oak-studded slopes of a mountain range south of Tucson from a large open-pit copper mine.

“The mining industry is using these new regulations to destroy lands that hold tremendous spiritual significance for Native Americans across the West,” noted Larson Bill, with the Western Shoshone Defense Project in Nevada. In Nevada, mines proposed under the new regulations sprawl across thousands of acres of public land at each mine site. “The new regulations provide an illegal subsidy for these open pit mines that will cause permanent impacts to public land and in some cases leave a toxic legacy- all at the expense of the hunters, hikers and Native communities that use these public lands,” said John Hadder, Executive Director of Great Basin Resource Watch in Reno.

In Colorado, residents of the town of Crested Butte have been fighting a large molybdenum mine proposed on Mt. Emmons in the watershed above the town. “Certain special places on our public lands should be protected for other more valuable uses, such as those supporting our recreation-based economy and clean water,” said Dan Morse, Executive Director of the High Country Citizens' Alliance in Crested Butte. “These regulations illegally allow the mining industry to dump waste in our town's drinking water supply, a giveaway that does not exist in the law,” said Morse.

“Allowing mining companies to escape paying their fair share for using public lands not only cheats the taxpayers, it creates a perverse incentive for companies to use public lands for waste dumping and other environmentally damaging practices,” said Lauren Pagel, Policy Director for EARTHWORKS. “Although the 1872 Mining Law is critically in need of reform, the existing laws must be enforced as well,” said Pagel.

“The new rules ignore the specific directive from the federal court requiring the payment of fair market value for the use of most of the lands at a mine site,” stated Roger Flynn, of the public interest law firm, Western Mining Action Project, in Lyons, Colorado which represents the groups in the lawsuit. “To make matters worse, in enacting these new regulations, the Bush Administration completely failed to consider the environmental impacts from such sweeping policy changes,” said Flynn. “These rules read as if they were written by the mining industry, not the government regulators supposedly entrusted with the care of the public's lands,” noted Flynn.

The groups filing the lawsuit are Earthworks (based on Washington, D.C.), High Country Citizens' Alliance (in Crested Butte, Colorado), Great Basin Resource Watch (in Reno, Nevada), Save the Scenic Santa Ritas (in Tucson, Arizona), and the Western Shoshone Defense Project (in Nevada). The Defendants are the U.S. Interior- the agency that issued the regulations, as well as the Agriculture Department, which along with Interior, oversees mining operations on western public lands.

— ENDS —


Lauren Pagel, EARTHWORKS, 202-887-1872×207
Gayle Hartmann, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, 520-325-6974
Dan Morse, High Country Citizens' Alliance, 970-349-7104
John Hadder, Great Basin Resource Watch, 775-348-1986
Roger Flynn, Western Mining Action Project, 303-823-5738


EARTHWORKS is a nonprofit public interest organization dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the destructive impacts of mining, digging, and drilling, in the U.S. and worldwide.

Great Basin Resource Watch is dedicated to protecting the health and well being of the land, air, water, wildlife, and human communities of the Great Basin from the adverse effects of resource extraction and use.

The mission of High County Citizens' Alliance is to champion the protection, conservation and preservation of the natural ecosystems within the Upper Gunnison River Basin.

Save the Scenic Santa Ritas' mission is to protect the scenic, aesthetic, recreational, environmental and wildlife values of the Santa Rita Mountains, Patagonia Mountains, Canelo Hills and San Rafael Valley through education and outreach, including protection of these areas from degradation due to mining activities.

Western Shoshone Defense Project is a non-profit organization located in northern Nevada. Its mission is to protect and preserve Western Shoshone rights and homelands for present and future generations based upon cultural and spiritual traditions.