US uproar over waste from gold mines

by Danielle Knight

Washington, May 10 -- US environmentalists are keeping a close eye on Republican lawmakers who, they say, are stealthily trying to add wording to a foreign spending bill that would permit large-scale dumping of mine waste on public land - currently prohibited by law.

"With a wink and a nod, Congress is poised to grant yet another special favour to the mining industry," says Stephen D'Esposito, president of the Mineral Policy Centre, a Washington-based advocacy organisation.

"This is an important test for the Administration."

The Centre's concern stems from the move by Republican Senator Slade Gorton of Washington state to attach such an amendment to the unrelated Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill.

That legislation provides military and relief funding for the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia and relief aid for victims of Hurricane Mitch, the storm that ravaged Central America.

The administration of President Bill Clinton previously opposed similar mining legislation and environmentalists and political analysts believe the Republican-dominated Senate is trying to sneak in an amendment with the expectation that the President will be forced to support the spending bill.

Environmental watchdogs say the expected amendment or added wording, known as an "anti-environmental rider" uses the suffering of war victims in Kosovo and the misery of the hurricane victims to advance the mining industry's interest to operate free of environmental regulations.

The current battle over the dumping legislation began deep within Buckhorn Mountain situated close to the Canadian border in North Central region of Washington State on what was once part of the Colville Indian Reservation.

Initial prospecting estimates gold deposits of the proposed Crown Jewel Mine at the site amount to tens of millions of dollars. Operating the mine, however, will mean removing the top of Buckhorn and the use of 30 millions pounds of cyanide to obtain the precious metal.

Texas-based Battle Mountain Gold Company has already spent millions of dollars in legal fees to secure state and local permits for the mine.

Local community and environmental groups fear the cyanide will contaminate the water.

"The Crown Jewel Mine would harm wildlife habitat and water resources on lands where the Colville Tribes have hunted, fished, gathered and worshipped since time immemorial," says Joseph Pakootas, chairman of the Colville Tribes' governing Business Council.

In response to such concerns, the government announced in March that the mining proposal could not go forward as planned because it violates a little known provision under the 1872 Mining Law.

The law limits the amount of public land that can be used for dumping waste to five acres for every 20 acres mined. Battle Mountain has asked to extract gold from 15 mineral claims and use 120 waste sites - well above the specified limit.

"The proposed mine would have illegally dumped toxic mine waste on 490 acres (about 200 hectares) of publicly-owned land," said Dave Kliegman of the Okonogan Highlands Alliance, a local community organisation. "This ruling affirms our contention that large scale devastation of the landscape this mine would have caused has got to be against the law."

The Clinton administration claims Battle Mountain can still mine Buckhorn Mountain using different methods, but the company and its allies say the alternatives are impractical.

"This is one of the most outrageous decisions that has come out of the Department of Interior in the last 20 or 30 years," said Laura Skaer, the executive director of the Northwest Mining Association, an industry group that says the ruling could prevent future mining in many parts of the Western United States.

Gorton, a vocal critic of the Clinton Administration, is expected to a rider to overturn the ruling, say congressional aides. he is backed by other lawmakers who point out that the mine it would provide around-the-clock employment for approximately 144 people for 10 years.

"The people of Eastern Washington and Battle Mountain have been treated unfairly by this administration, and we intend to seek solutions to rectify this matter," Cynthia Bergman, spokeswoman for Gorton, told reporters.

The White House has not yet expressed a position on the anticipated amendment but environmentalists say the controversy over the issue finally may force a debate to reform the 1872 mining law.

"It's an archaic law that needs to be revised," says Kliegman.

For years environmentalists have sought to reform the 127-year- old legislation that allows mining companies, observing only minimal environmental standards, to extract gold, silver, and other valuable minerals from public lands at no charge.

"Under the law, the mining industry has extracted more than $240 billion of publicly-owned minerals without paying a penny," says D'Esposito.

The public, meanwhile, is expected to pay the estimated 32 to 72 billion dollar tab for the environmental clean-up costs of more than 500,000 mines abandoned by mining companies, he says.

The 1872 law was passed at a time when most mining was done underground with a pick axe and a mule. Now open-pit mines that generate huge amounts of waste like Crown Jewel Mine are the norm. (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor(SUNS).

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