By Phillips S. Baker
October 17, 2016 at 5:00 am ET
Sometimes we forget that mining continues to be a significant part of the U.S. economy. With several thousand mines operating nationwide, the United States is able to produce precious metals such as gold and silver, as well as metals such as zinc, copper, and iron needed to manufacture electric vehicles and solar panels. All of these mineral and metal mines provide good-paying, middle-class jobs for more than 130,00 workers throughout the country.
Unfortunately, a number of mining operations in the U.S. could face a real threat, thanks to an unnecessary new proposal from the EPA that seeks to duplicate existing financial assurance requirements for mine reclamation.
Currently, mining states utilize specific programs to evaluate and approve the financial assurance required for mining companies. These states have a strong interest in seeing that their natural resources are adequately protected, and so, they employ staff to appraise and calculate financial requirements in conjunction with federal laws overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. This system has worked well for decades, with federal and state laws evolving along the way to rectify any deficiencies and to ensure that the highest level of environmental protection is achieved.
Now, however, the EPA is developing a new rule to require additional financial assurance for the hardrock mining industry. Like many regulations, this one sounds reasonable — requiring mineral miners to demonstrate the financial ability to clean up anything that could potentially contaminate land or water. This ensures that environmental risks are being managed, and are paid for by companies, not taxpayers.
Ironically, this very reasonable approach is exactly what states and the federal government are already doing. And so, the new EPA proposal simply makes no sense.
Such a heavy-handed approach by the EPA has already raised the concerns of state governors and congressional committees overseeing exactly these regulations. They worry that not only has the EPA failed to study the issue thoroughly, but the imposition of a duplicative, redundant financial assurance requirement could put a number of mines out of business.
As just one example, Hecla Mining Company, a 125-year-old silver mining company, has successfully permitted, built, and closed multiple mines in the United States, bringing much needed economic benefits to rural economies. However, with such a drain on financial resources as posed by the new EPA requirements, it’s less likely Hecla could have built these mines at all.
What’s particularly troubling is that the nation’s existing mineral mines currently provide an absolutely crucial array of resources needed to help domestic manufacturers compete in the 21st Century economy. Minerals like copper, zinc, gold, silver, and molybdenum are crucial for the construction of hybrid cars, electronics, and wind turbines.
Troublingly, America is now completely import-dependent for 19 key minerals and more than 50 percent dependent for another 24 important minerals. The last thing the nation needs is a new layer of federal regulations that makes mining more difficult, deepens the country’s already dangerous dependency on foreign mineral supplies, and puts thousands of good-paying jobs at risk.
Phillips S. Baker is CEO of Hecla Mining Company and the incoming chairman of the National Mining Association.
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