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Context of 'January 7, 2004: Alteration to Mining Rule Said to Be Damaging to Environment'

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The US Fish and Wildlife Service revises a Clinton-era judgment which had concluded that the proposed construction and operation of two mines in the Cabinet Mountains of Montana would likely have an adverse impact on the local population of grizzly bears. In January 2002, twelve months after the Bush administration came into office, the mining companies filed a lawsuit protesting this judgment. The US Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to reconsider the case reasoning that it needed to “make sure that it [had been] based on the best available science.” Some time after the decision was made to reconsider the case, one of the mining companies abandoned its permit. The Fish and Wildlife Service, in its new judgment, concludes that the operation of one mine would not threaten the area’s grizzly bears. (Earth Justice 1/29/2002; Fish and Wild Service 5/13/2003; Devlin 5/14/2003) The proposed Rock Creek Mine, a copper and silver mine, would be the first large-scale mining operation to take place in a wilderness area. It would remove up to 10,000 tons of materials each day for up to 35 years. Critics argue that traffic brought by the mine and its accompanying roads would harm the local populations of grizzlies and bull trout and contaminate the surrounding watershed. (Fish and Wild Service 5/13/2003; Devlin 5/14/2003; Harden 5/18/2003; Clark Fork Coalition 7/30/2004) The company that would operate the mine, Sterling Corporation, and its executives have a poor business and environmental record. (Mattera and Khan 1/2003 pdf file; Clark Fork Coalition 7/30/2004)

Interior Secretary Gale Norton signs a legal opinion by Deputy Solicitor Roderick Walston reversing the interpretation of the agency’s previous solicitor-general, John Leshy, who had ruled in 1996 that the 1872 Mining Law limits each 20-acre mining claim on federal land to a single five-acre waste site. As a result of Norton’s decision, mining companies will be permitted to dump unlimited amounts of toxic waste on public lands, threatening surrounding waterways, wildlife, and the health of local human populations. The Bush administration and the mining industry have argued that the Clinton-era opinion caused a significant reduction in US minerals exploration, mine development and mining jobs since 1997. “It created an atmosphere of uncertainty and when you are making investments of hundreds of millions of dollars, uncertainty is not something you want to face,” explains Assistant Interior Secretary Rebecca Watson. “We anticipate we will now see more development and exploration for mining.” The decision was praised by the mining industry. “This is good news,L Russ Fields, executive director of the Nevada Mining Association. “The old opinion did create a lot of uncertainty for our industry.” (Sonner 10/10/2003)

The US Office of Surface Mining (OSM) announces that it intends to “clarify” the buffer zone rule of the Surface Mining Act of 1977, which governs permits for coal strip mines that are located within 100 feet of a stream. The Bush administration disagrees with the current interpretation of the rule which prohibits mining near streams unless it can be shown that the activities will not “adversely affect the water quantity and quality or other environmental resources of the stream.” The White House claims that the buffer zone rule is confusing and its current application too restrictive on the coal mining industry. Instead, the administration proposes a policy that would call on coal operators to minimize the impact on streams “to the extent possible, using the best technology currently available.” Critics warn that the proposed “clarification” would encourage a method of surface mining known as “mountaintop mining,” which involves the removal of mountaintops to expose coal seams. The method is extremely destructive to the environment because the resulting debris is bulldozed into nearby valleys, often completely burying streams in a practice known as “valley fill.” (Zuckerbrod 1/7/2004; Department of the Interior 1/7/2004 pdf file; Ward 1/8/2004; Pegg 1/8/2004; New York Times 1/13/2004; Shogren 1/18/2004)


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