The Environmental Protection Agency plans to require mining companies to show they have the financial wherewithal to clean up their pollution so taxpayers aren’t stuck footing the bill.
The proposal follows a 2016 agreement reached under court order for the government to enforce a long-ignored provision in the 1980 federal Superfund law.
The requirement would apply to hardrock mining, which includes mines for precious metals, copper, iron, lead and other ores. It would cover mines and processing facilities in 38 states, requiring their owners to set aside sufficient money to pay for future clean ups.
The EPA is considering similar requirements for chemical manufacturers, power generation companies and the petroleum refining and coal manufacturing industries.
From 2010 to 2014, the EPA spent $1.1 billion on cleanup work at abandoned hardrock mining and processing sites across the U.S.
The new rule “would move the financial burden from taxpayers and ensure that industry assumes responsibility for these cleanups,” EPA Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus said Dec. 2.
Companies would face a combined $7.1 billion financial obligation under the new rule, the EPA estimated. The agency said the amount could be covered through third parties such as surety bonds or self-insured, corporate guarantees.
Contaminated water from mine sites can flow into rivers and other waterways, harming aquatic life and threatening drinking water supplies. Companies in the past avoided cleanup costs in many cases by declaring bankruptcy.
Last year, an EPA cleanup team accidentally triggered a 3-million gallon spill of contaminated water from Colorado’s inactive Gold King mine, tainting rivers in three states with heavy metals including arsenic and lead.
Representatives of Earthworks, an advocacy group that has pushed for mining companies to be held accountable, said the EPA proposal would give the industry an incentive to reduce its pollution. But key to its success, said Earthworks’ Bonnie Gestring, will be making companies post cleanup bonds rather than offer corporate guarantees that they might not make good on.
The National Mining Association blasted the rule as “unnecessary, redundant and poorly constructed,” because existing programs prevent mines from becoming Superfund sites.
The group accused government officials of overstating the potential risks from modern mining techniques, in a rushed attempt to put a new rule in place before President Barack Obama leaves the White House next month.
Echoing the industry’s concerns were U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah and Energy Committee Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan. The Republicans said programs in place at the state level already ensure the environment is protected.
In documents released with the new rule, the EPA said that since 1980, at least 52 mines and mine processing sites using modern techniques had spills or other releases of pollution.
There are about 300 hardrock mines in the U.S. Combined they produced about $26.6 billion worth of metals last year, according to mining association Senior Vice President Ashley Burke. Of those mines, the EPA said 221 would be subject to the rule.
The agency took the first step toward seeking financial assurances on cleanups from hardrock mining companies in 2010 in response to a lawsuit from environmental groups.
In 2014, frustration with the agency’s slow progress prompted Earthworks, the Sierra Club and other groups to file a second suit that resulted in last year’s court order. A subsequent order in that case requires the EPA to finalize its rule by Dec. 1, 2017.