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Groups file suit to keep mining law

Six environmental groups this week filed suit in federal court against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for scrapping a rule requiring mining companies to prove they have enough money -- before mining starts -- to pay for any environmenta...

Six environmental groups this week filed suit in federal court against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for scrapping a rule requiring mining companies to prove they have enough money - before mining starts - to pay for any environmental damage that happens during the process.

Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, Earthworks and other groups filed against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt asking the court to force the agency to uphold the financial requirements that were originally set in motion by the Obama administration.

The up-front money would pay for sometimes massive cleanups left behind by bankrupt or otherwise scuttled operations that leave legacy pollution and other cleanup behind, often leaving taxpayer holding the bag for massive cleanup costs, the groups said.

The rule would apply to new iron ore and copper-nickel projects in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan as well as western states.

The EPA spent $1.1 billion on cleanup work at abandoned hard-rock mining and processing sites across the U.S. from 2010 to 2014, the agency noted in 2016. The EPA estimates the backlog of cleanup costs for hard-rock mines across the country range from $20 billion to $54 billion.

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"The mining industry should not be allowed to stick taxpayers with the cleanup costs for their operations," Bonnie Gestring, Northwest Program director at Earthworks, said in a statement.

The suit was filed Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

The mining rule was proposed in 2016 after a federal judge, in a case won by environmental groups, found that the EPA had been ignoring a provision of the 1980 federal Superfund law. The court ruled that the government indeed should require the up-front money from mining companies considering the long history of legacy cleanup costs.

Environmental groups said the rule was needed because, unlike other financial assurance requirements by state and federal agencies, it would have covered the cleanup costs of spills and accidents involving hazardous substances unforeseen by a mine plan or mine permits.

But industry officials and Pruitt said the federal law wasn't needed because other rules, and state laws, already require companies to have financial insurance in place.

"Additional financial assurance requirements are unnecessary and would impose an undue burden on this important sector of the American economy and rural America, where most of these mining jobs are based," Pruitt said in December when he announced he was dropping the requirement.

Related Topics: ENVIRONMENT
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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