WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., says the federal government is not living up to its obligation to ensure that hardrock mine operators pay for reclaiming public lands marred by their operations. A Government Accountability Office study, requested by Lieberman and made public Monday, found that in nine of 12 states surveyed, Bureau of Land Management officials reported hardrock mines with no financial assurances for reclamation.
“If the public’s land is to be mined, then mine operators are obligated to clean up after themselves,” Lieberman said. “Private use of public land comes with responsibilities, and the BLM is shirking its responsibility to ensure mine operators live up to their obligations.” Recent federal regulations require hardrock mining operators to provide financial assurances to cover the estimated costs of reclamation before they begin operations. The precise number of hardrock operations abandoned over the past century is not known, but it is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, and many of them pose environmental, health, and safety risks, according to GAO. AThe GAO findings have serious implications for the management of our public lands,” Lieberman said. AWhen operators without any financial assurances or with inadequate financial assurances fail to reclaim BLM land disturbed by their hardrock operations, BLM is left with public land that requires tens of millions of dollars to reclaim and poses risks to the environment and public health, and safety. BLM must ensure regulations requiring financial assurances are enforced, so that taxpayers are not left holding the bag.” In the 12 states surveyed, BLM identified 48 mines that had been abandoned but not cleaned up since BLM began requiring mine operators to provide financial assurances for reclamation. The most recent cost estimate to restore these mines is $136 million, but that figure doesn=t take inflation into account, nor does it account for the cost estimates for cleanup of five of the 48 mines. To make matters worse, GAO found that cost estimates for many of the 48 operations had not been updated and that BLM did not provide information on all mines that had ceased but had not been reclaimed. Mine operators have guaranteed only about half – or $69 million – of the needed reclamation assurances. This leaves taxpayers with the burden of either paying for the reclamation or living with the environmental consequences of land that has not been reclaimed. GAO also found that the $837 million in reclamation guarantees for existing hardrock mines on BLM land may not be enough to cover the costs of reclaiming future mines if operators fail to do so. Not all existing hardrock operations have financial assurances and some have no plans, or outdated plans and cost estimates on which financial assurances are based. For example, GAO said that between 50 percent and 74 percent of smaller hardrock mines (referred to as “notice-level” mines) in Arizona and Utah have no financial assurances. Also without assurances are 25 percent to 49 percent of larger mines in Arizona (referred to as “plan-level” mines), 15 percent to 24 percent of larger operations in Utah, and 15 percent to 24 percent of hardrock operations in New Mexico. GAO said BLM doesn=t even know whether all hardrock mines have adequate financial assurances because of limitations in its data tracking system. BLM said existing procedures ensure financial guarantees are in place to protect the public should an operator fail to reclaim and rejected GAO’s recommendation to improve. “Given the serious inadequacies found by this report, I’m extremely disappointed BLM believes all is well and good,” Lieberman said. “BLM should accept the recommendations for improvement made by GAO and implement them speedily.” The GAO report is available at: http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-05-377