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SOURCE: Earth Justice

DATE: May 13, 2019

SNIP: The mining industry played a key role in persuading the Environmental Protection Agency to reject a proposed rule that would have protected the public from toxic mining disasters, an Earthjustice review of thousands of agency records and emails has revealed.

Under federal Superfund law, the EPA must establish rules requiring industries with a track record of hazardous pollution to demonstrate their ability to cover the cost of toxic cleanups. In early January, 2017, EPA issued a proposed insurance requirement that would have made operators of the riskiest hard-rock mines responsible for their own cleanup costs. Known as the hard-rock mining financial assurances rule, this regulation sought to provide incentives for safer mining practices and to minimize the potential for new toxic mining disasters.

Yet in January of 2018, the Trump administration suddenly abandoned this proposed rule, which was on track to be finalized and would have soon taken effect. This abrupt reversal marked a return to business as usual, with taxpayers footing the bill for hazardous spill cleanups from dangerous mine sites.

Throughout the western United States, abandoned copper, gold and other hard-rock mines have sat polluted for decades after valuable minerals were extracted, leaching acid mine drainage and posing extreme health risks by releasing cancer-causing chemicals into waterways. In some cases, the hazardous abandoned mines even created cyanide plumes in groundwater, poisoning nearby residential drinking water supplies. When mine operators lack the funds to remediate these hazards, as if often the case, the cost burden shifts onto taxpayers — often to the tune of hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars for a single abandoned mine site.

On behalf of Idaho Conservation League, Earthworks, Amigos Bravos, Sierra Club, Great Basin Resource Watch, and Communities for a Better Environment, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in May of 2018 challenging this handout to industry. The D.C. Circuit heard oral argument in March of 2019, and a ruling from the court could come any day.

In early 2019, Earthjustice also filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking EPA records on internal decision-making surrounding the hard-rock mining rule.

The trove of documents returned in response belies a pattern of pressure from the mining industry and Trump appointees leading to EPA’s decision to halt the rule.

Records show Trump appointees to the EPA determining that the rule should be halted, and EPA regulators exchanging frequent, amiable messages with mining industry representatives who stood to benefit financially if the rulemaking effort was abandoned.

[Read the whole article for notable findings from the FOIA request.]