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Miners, NGOs square off on NEPA reform

By: Dorothy Kosich
Posted: '19-MAY-05 04:00' GMT Mineweb 1997-2004
SPARKS, NEVADA--(Mineweb.com) What had the geologists buzzing at the just-concluded Geological Society of Nevada Symposium was--of all things--NEPA.

Apparently, U.S. House Committee on Resources Chairman Richard Pombo, R-California, recently told members of the National Mining Association Board at their meeting in Phoenix that reform of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was his top priority. Unfortunately, the news media was not permitted to attend the meeting.

The dynamos of the Women's Mining Coalition were busy drumming up the troops this week at the GSN, encouraging the geo-science types to--on the spot--send one of four pre-formatted form letters to their favorite congressperson urging NEPA reform.

NEPA is the national environmental statute applicable to nearly all actions taken or approved by federal agencies. If the action may have a significant impact on the quality of the environment, the agency must prepare a detailed environmental impact statement (EIS).

However, as Doug McDonald, Secretary for the Washington State Department of Transportation testified recently, after three decades "problems and tendencies have emerged in the implementation of NEPA that are consistent with NEPA's original vision and detract from its usefulness." McDonald asserted that implementing NEPA now has resulted in procedures that "are too long and complicated and documents and reports that no ordinary citizen, much less a busy public official, would ever be able to understand."

Northwest Mining Association (NWMA) Executive Director Laura Skaer, a member of the Women's Mining Coalition, told the House Task Force on Improving the National Environmental Policy Act that "the sad truth is that the United States is considered a high risk, unpredictable country by the investment markets that supply the capital to fund exploration development. The NEPA process, the U.S. permitting system, restricted access to mineral deposits and the inability to secure land tenure has made mineral development and production difficult, time consuming, costly and in some cases, impossible."

Skaer claimed that NEPA has become "THE TOOL used by obstructionist groups who oppose responsible and lawful mineral development on federal public lands; a project-killing, job-killing, community-killing tool. Communities like Safford, Arizona, Sanders and Lincoln counties in Montana, San Juan County in Utah pay the price of a broken permitting system."

Skaer and the NWMA suggested lawmakers reaffirm NEPA's intent through stressing that NEPA is only procedural and "cannot be used to condition, delay or deny a project that complies with all substantive environmental laws and regulations." She also called for requiring that opponents of mining projects post a bond when appealing or litigating a federal agency decision approving a mining project. Congress should also reject opponents to pay legal fees and costs for both the agency and the project proponent when they lose a legal challenge.

The NWMA also suggested that the President should issue an Executive Order "requiring federal agencies to demonstrate that their regulations, policies and decisions comply with this law."

In his testimony before the Task Force, Luke Russell, Director of Environmental Affairs for Coeur d'Alene Mines, said he was perplexed that the company's Rochester Mine, which has been operating since 1988 and has underground several NEPA analyses, is now being required to embark on an EIS for closure. "Requiring an EIS after a mine is developed and operated, only adds cost and uncertainty to the project," he declared.

Russell also called for mandatory timelines for the NEPA process, as well as the increased involvement of local communities in the process. "For the price of a postage stamp a party can appeal a NEPA decision even if they were not actively involved in the process," he asserted. "The statute should be amended to clarify that parties must be involved throughout the process in order to have standing in an appeal."

Coeur also urged that NEPA should make a distinction between the scope of analysis for a new project, an existing project, or a project entering closure. The company also called for the creation of an NEPA ombudsmen within the President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), including the ombudsmen the decision-making authority to resolve conflicts within the NEPA process.

Pombo appointed Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Washington, to chair the House Taskforce on NEPA. The taskforce is planning to conduct six field hearings to hear testimony from those directly impacted by NEPA. The first hearing was held in Washington State last month. At the conclusion of the hearings, the NEPA Taskforce will issue a report on their findings and any appropriate recommendations for reform. Pombo said the task force would look at shortening the time involved in EIS, including limiting the total number of alternative solutions a federal agency should research before making a decision regarding a project.

The National Mining Association has already "enthusiastically" endorsed the task force. Sierra Club President Carl Pope write that "the radical right wants to make sure the public doesn't know what government is doing, because if the public doesn't know, then the public can't object."

"Pombo is planning a multi-phased attack: diminish the role of federal agencies in preparing the documents to give state and local governments a bigger say, end scrutiny of many categories of projects altogether, and deny the public much of the information it is currently entitled to," Pope asserted on the Sierra Club website.

Pombo has declared that the task force "is on no way an effort to gut or change NEPA." However, Seattle newspaper columnist Joel Connelly responded, "I trust McMorris's task force about as far as I can hand roll a bulldozer."






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