The administration of President Donald Trump announced on Friday that it will not require mining companies to demonstrate that they have the financial means to clean up their pollution, despite an industrial legacy of abandoned mines that have washed water through the United States.
The move came after mining groups and republicans in the Western state opposed a proposal from former President Barack Obama to get companies set aside money for future cleaning costs.
The administrator of the US Environmental Protection Administration, Scott Pruitt, said that modern mining practices and state and federal regulations already in place adequately address the risks of the mines still in operation.
Requesting more from mining companies was not necessary, said Pruitt, and “would impose too much weight on this important sector of the American economy and rural America, where most of these jobs are based”.
The US mining industry has a long history of abandoning contaminated sites and leaves taxpayers to pay the cleaning bill. Thousands of closed mines lose contaminated water in rivers, streams and other watercourses, including hundreds of cases where the EPA has intervened, sometimes at huge expense.
The EPA has spent $ 1.1 billion for reclamation work at hard rock mining and processing sites abandoned in the United States from 2010 to 2014.
Starting in 1980, at least 52 mines and mine processing sites using modern techniques had payments or other pollution emissions, according to documents released by the EPA last year.
In 2015, an EPA cleaning team accidentally triggered a spill of 3 million gallons of water contaminated by the inactive Gold King mine, contaminating rivers in three states with heavy metals including arsenic and lead.
The Obama era rule was issued last December by court order after environmental groups have sued the government to enforce a long-ignored provision in the 1980 Federal Superfund law.
“It is irritating to see the Trump administration line up with industry pollutants against American taxpayers,” Bonnie Gestring said with Earthworks, one of the plaintiffs of the case.
“We will see them again in court,” he added.
The proposal applied to hard rock mines, which includes precious metals, copper, iron, lead and other minerals. The coal mines were already required to provide insurance that they will pay for cleaning under a federal law of 1977.
Hard-rock mining companies would face a $ 7.1 billion combined financial obligation based on the fallen rule, costing them up to $ 171 million a year to set aside sufficient funds to pay for future cleaning, according to an analysis EPA.
The mining industry and members of the Congress of Western states welcomed the announcement on Friday.
The president of the National Mining Association, Hal Quinn, said that Obama’s proposal is the result of environmentalists who used the dispute to force the government to make a decision that was not necessary.
“Today’s action shows that reason can prevail,” Quinn said.
The hard rock mines in the United States produced about 26.6 billion dollars of metals in 2015, according to the association. Of those mines, the EPA had said that 221 would be subject to the abandoned rule.