BILLINGS — The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday said it 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 2015 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 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 2013, 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.
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.
The National Mining Association said the new rule was “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.
U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah and Energy Committee Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan voiced similar concerns. The Republicans said programs in place at the state level already ensure the environment is protected and predicted the EPA proposal would result in a multibillion dollar obligation for the mining industry.
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 the Sierra Club, Earthworks 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.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.