WASHINGTON, DC, October 20, 2009 (ENS) – Two Bush-era regulations that relaxed limits on the dumping of mine waste and removed the mining industry’s obligation to compensate the American public for the use of public lands are targeted in a lawsuit filed today by a coalition of five conservation and tribal groups.

The lawsuit filed today in federal district court in Washington, DC claims that these two regulations weakened the requirements for environmental and taxpayer protections on federal public land used for mining operations.

Named as defendants are the U.S. Department of the Interior, the agency that issued the regulations, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which along with Interior, oversees mining operations on western public lands.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today declined to comment until he had reviewed the legal documents.

The regulations at issue overturned previous regulations and policies that had limited the dumping of mine waste to what was strictly allowed by federal mining and public land laws. Instead, multinational mining companies are now allowed to use unlimited amounts of public land to dump toxic mine waste and tailings.aw.

“Giving away rights to public land to multinational mining corporations at the expense of our precious groundwater and a healthy environment not only doesn’t make sense, its against the law,” said Gayle Hartmann, of the Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, a citizens group in Tucson, Arizona that is working to protect the canyons and oak-studded slopes of a mountain range south of Tucson from a large open-pit copper mine.

In Nevada, mines proposed under the new regulations sprawl across thousands of acres of public land at each mine site.

“The mining industry is using these new regulations to destroy lands that hold tremendous spiritual significance for Native Americans across the West,” said Larson Bill, with the Western Shoshone Defense Project in Nevada.

“The new regulations provide an illegal subsidy for these open pit mines that will cause permanent impacts to public land and in some cases leave a toxic legacy – all at the expense of the hunters, hikers and Native communities that use these public lands,” said John Hadder, executive director of Great Basin Resource Watch in Reno, Nevada.

One of the challenged regulations, first issued in 2003, reinterpreted what is known as the “millsite provision” of the 1872 Mining Law.

Mine waste contaminates a Montana stream (Photo courtesy Montana DEQ)

The other challenged regulation, issued in the waning days of the Bush Administration in December 2008, reversed a legal ruling that required the payment of “fair market value” for the use of public lands not specifically protected by valid mining and millsite claims.

Here, the new regulation ignored a ruling from the federal court in Washington in 2003, which ordered the Interior Department to issue regulations so that mining companies would have to compensate the public for the use of public lands. The new regulation eliminates the mining industry’s obligations to pay fair market value.

In Colorado, residents of the town of Crested Butte have been fighting a large molybdenum mine proposed on Mt. Emmons in the watershed above the town.

“Certain special places on our public lands should be protected for other more valuable uses, such as those supporting our recreation-based economy and clean water,” said Dan Morse, executive director of the High Country Citizens’ Alliance in Crested Butte. “These regulations illegally allow the mining industry to dump waste in our town’s drinking water supply, a giveaway that does not exist in the law.”

“Allowing mining companies to escape paying their fair share for using public lands not only cheats the taxpayers, it creates a perverse incentive for companies to use public lands for waste dumping and other environmentally damaging practices,” said Lauren Pagel, policy director for the nonprofit Earthworks. “Although the 1872 Mining Law is critically in need of reform, the existing laws must be enforced as well.”

“The new rules ignore the specific directive from the federal court requiring the payment of fair market value for the use of most of the lands at a mine site,” stated Roger Flynn, of the public interest law firm, Western Mining Action Project, in Lyons, Colorado which represents the groups in the lawsuit.

“To make matters worse, in enacting these new regulations, the Bush Administration completely failed to consider the environmental impacts from such sweeping policy changes,” said Flynn. “These rules read as if they were written by the mining industry, not the government regulators supposedly entrusted with the care of the public’s lands.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.