The mining industry and its friends in Congress want to silence public and environmental concerns about the nation’s No. 1 toxic polluter by introducing legislation that would exempt mines from one of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This new legislation has the potential to significantly impact public lands in New Mexico, and U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both New Mexico Democrats, must not allow it to become law.
Because it doesn’t have the public support to become law on its own merits, mining industry advocates in the House of Representatives have added this special favor – the National ‘Strategic and Critical’ Minerals Production Act – to an unrelated must-pass bill that funds the Department of Defense and national security.
This is urgent: if the mining industry succeeds, the National Environmental Policy Act will be waived for all existing and new hardrock mine projects on public lands, including our national forests. NEPA guarantees the public’s voice will be heard when federal land managers consider permitting a mine. Because mining companies want to silence our voices, the new language requires only some kind of public participation, rather than NEPA’s prescribed opportunities for public review and comment.
And the burden for permitting and environmental review is shifted onto the states. This will cost cash-strapped state agencies more money, while facing strict deadlines under a 30-month permitting process. Here in New Mexico, mining companies and state agencies already can’t meet 5-year permit renewal deadlines for mines under the Mining Act and Water Quality Act. Reclamation and discharge permits for closure for Freeport-McMoRan’s Chino, Continental and Tyrone mines in Grant County are more than a decade out of date. At the Chevron Questa Mine, state-held financial assurance only covers a fraction of the costs that have been estimated by the state and the Environmental Protection Agency as needed to clean up the site.
Adding insult to injury, the National ‘Strategic & Critical’ Minerals Production Act isn’t about defense: There’s already a law that requires stockpiling strategic minerals. It isn’t about critical minerals either: It would declare the mining of nearly everything – from sand and gravel to gold and silver for jewelry – “critical”.
We hope Sens. Udall and Heinrich will do the right thing and tell their Senate colleagues that the ‘Strategic and Critical’ special favor to the mining industry should be stripped from the bill that funds our national defense.