A bill being debated on the U.S. House floor today would reduce the time and effort required to get a hardrock mine permit on federal land by bypassing some public comment and federal oversight.
The National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2012 would classify hardrock mining operations as “infrastructure” projects, which were granted abbreviated permitting and review processes by President Barack Obama in a March 22 executive order.
The executive order was intended to reduce permitting times for deteriorating national infrastructure such as roads, bridges and electrical transmission. But bill sponsor Rep. Mark Amodel, R-Nev., extended the definition to mines that produce the raw material to build infrastructure.
The bill defines “strategic and critical minerals” as any mineral used in defense, infrastructure, manufacturing or economic security, which could include all mining.
Mining industry representatives support the bill as a way to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign minerals, while environmental groups say it gives mining companies even more freedom to exploit public lands and waters.
The bill would reduce permit requirements in three main ways.
It would allow federal agencies such as the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, to eliminate a review of a proposal under the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA requires either an assessment or a more-stringent impact statement outlining a spectrum of environmental and economic options and invites public comment for all projects on federal lands.
The length of the permitting process would be limited to 2.5 years.
Finally, the bill would require that lawsuits challenging any permit be filed within 60 days of any federal action.
Permit supervisor Herb Rolfes said the Montana Department of Environmental Quality oversees the permits for six large hardrock mines in the state and are working on the permits for four others.
“We’re expecting more if the price of metals goes up,” Rolfes said.
Most mines are on a mixture of private and public land, but DEQ handles permitting for all.
Rolfes said the bill would probably change the permitting work DEQ does but Montana still has its own Environmental Policy Act that he’d have to follow.
The Golden Sunlight mine near Whitehall excavates mostly private land but also uses BLM land. Manager Tim Dimock said the company had to wait five years for the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement in 2006.
“We’re a known quantity, and our permits come in in a reasonable time,” Dimock said. “But that took some time.”
Dimock said cutting that time down would be helpful because, if Golden Sunlight expands, it would mine more BLM land.
Northwest Mining Association director Laura Skaer said she wants the U.S. to become more like Canada or Australia, where it takes between two and three years to permit a mine.
“The country ought to be embarrassed that among the 25 leading mining countries, the U.S. ranks last with Papua New Guinea,” Skaer said. “This doesn’t eliminate the ability to sue; it just streamlines it.”
Rep. Denny Rehberg is a cosponsor of the bill and said the bill would help the private sector create jobs.
“This legislation brings some much needed certainty to job creators right here in Montana, while decreasing our dependence on foreign sources,” Rehberg said in a written statement. “We can do this with minimal environmental impact and a maximum economic impact.”
Earthworks spokeswoman Bonnie Gestering said the bill is unnecessary because federal agencies already have the authority to fast-track a project that doesn’t put resources at risk.
If permitting takes more than three years, the plan has obvious problems to begin with, Gestring said. She pointed to the Rock Creek Mine near Nome, Ala., which was permitted in three months.
“They had to close it within six months because of all the problems that developed,” Gestring said. “Tax payers are still paying for mine-related environmental problems in several states.”
The White House said Tuesday that it strongly opposes the “vaguely worded” bill and it’s not alone.
Several environmental groups say public involvement is being curtailed and that mining companies already have many benefits not available to other industries.
“The deck is already stacked in their favor,” Gestering said.
Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or email@example.com.