EARTHWORKS

Congress Funds a Government Complete with Mining Policy Riders

Aaron Mintzes's avatar
By Aaron Mintzes

January 24, 2014

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Lower Slate Lake in Alaska was once a lake

If you really want to know the priorities our elected officials have, look how they spend money. Last week, Congress passed an Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill to fund the Federal Government through September 30- the end of the fiscal year.  A welcome improvement I think, since not too long ago, Congress shutdown the government and raised the specter of a debt default.  This bill better funds the programs and agencies that help protect our communities and precious resources. But that money comes with strings attached.

My Ambitions as a Rider

Legislators attach riders to budget bills to control the purse for policies that otherwise could not pass on their own. These provisions instead just hitch a ride on must pass spending bills. In this omnibus, we have a mining rider that blocks a good change, one that supports a bad policy, and one that keeps a good idea in place.

Filling Rivers, Lakes, and Streams With Mine Waste - A disastrous policy continued by this rider

Division D Title I Sec. 115. None of the funds made available in this or any other Act making appropriations for Energy and Water Development for any fiscal year may be used by the Corps of Engineers during the fiscal year ending September 30, 2014, to develop, adopt, implement, administer, or enforce any change to the regulations in effect on October 1, 2012, pertaining to the definitions of the terms ‘‘fill material’’ or ‘‘discharge of fill material’’ for the purposes of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (33 U.S.C. 1251 et seq.)

The Army Corps of Engineers could really use the resources to end the practice of turning rivers in to waste dumps. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act authorizes the Army Corps to issue permits allowing miners to discharge “fill materials” that cause only minimal adverse environmental effects. Originally, this provision applied only to rock, soil, sand, wood chips, and other materials usually related to construction activities. But revisions made in 2002 also tossed in toxic mine waste laden with arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. These changes, combined with a second Clean Water Act loophole allowing miners to designate water as “waste treatment systems”, means that what was once a lake is now a massive pit filled with millions of tons of mine waste.

Building Roads through the Tongass National Forest - A made-to-order rider promoting mining

Division G Title IV Sec. 435. In Region 10, the Secretary of Agriculture, acting though the Chief of the Forest Service, shall allow reasonable access for the orderly development of mining claims located inside areas subject to mineral lands use designations in the relevant Forest Plan.

Investors in Alaska’s Bokan Mountain minerals advertise their project as a uranium deposit that includes a cache of so-called rare earth elements. Rare earths are the new bling in mining. To access the deposit, Canadian-based Ucore, wants to build a road through the Tongass National Forest. This rider really just expresses a sentiment favoring a particular mining project. It does not actually change policy since the Forest Service can neither deny the mine nor access to it.

What’s Mine is Mine - A rider blocking some of a bad law

Division G Title IV Sec. 405. (a) LIMITATION OF FUNDS.—None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available pursuant to this Act shall be obligated or expended to accept or process applications for a patent for any mining or mill site claim located under the general mining laws.

One of the many peculiarities of the 1872 Mining Law is patenting. If you wander upon public land and discover a valuable mineral deposit, the land and all the wealth underneath can become yours for a mere $5/acre. All you need to do is fill out the paperwork. Fortunately, Congress created a moratorium on patenting in 1994. This omnibus extends the moratorium another year by forbidding the government from paying anyone to process the patents.

There's No Environmental Protection Without Money to Fund It

Although riders in a huge spending package are not always the best way to legislate, the overall funding levels are better than we’ve seen recently. And this sure beats piece-meal funding of the government a few months at a time. Good thing too, because protecting the environment from toxic mine waste in our rivers costs a lot of money. Closing the Clean Water Act loopholes, reforming the 1872 Mining Law, and ensuring adequate bonding for mining projects would accomplish much more than slipping policy riders in to a spending bill. Besides, it’s better to catch the barge from Ketchikan than build roads through the Tongass.


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Tagged with: riders, loopholes, fill, clean water act, budget, bokan, appropriations

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