Small-claim miners prepare for rule changes

Posted: Tuesday, July 03, 2001

WASHINGTON - Small miners working federal claims in Alaska have until September to obtain bonds to cover any potential costs of restoring the land should their mines close. But debate over that rule and other new mining regulations continues.

The federal Bureau of Land Management announced June 15 that it would uphold a Clinton administration rule that requires all miners to obtain bonds. Previously, miners who had a disturbed area of 5 acres or less didn't have to obtain a cleanup bond.

Bonding provides money to restore a mine site with topsoil and natural contouring if a mining company goes bankrupt.

Although the Bush administration kept the Clinton bonding rules, it did decide to delay the deadline for compliance from July 19 to Sept. 13.

The Alaska Miners Association said small miners would not have time to obtain bonds under the earlier deadline, given the short northern mining season.

Federal officials have estimated about 135 mining operations in Alaska are affected by the rules.

Large mining companies have secured such bonding for many years, according to Karen Batra of the National Mining Association, which primarily represents major mining companies.

However, Steve Borell, director of the Alaska Miners Association, said he is concerned the BLM's new rules will disallow the only method that small Alaska miners in recent years have found to provide such a guarantee - the state bonding pool. The pool backs small miners, mostly placer operators, who do not use chemicals in the mining process.

"The way this is written, you can't use state bonding pools," Borell told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "What you effectively will have done is eliminate the small mining operations."

The bonding requirement was just one among a list of changes to mining rules that the Clinton administration issued on its last day following a lengthy public process. The final draft rules were first published Nov. 21, two months before Clinton left office.

Although the BLM upheld the new bonding rules June 15, it also announced it would continue to review the other changes adopted by Clinton.

Chief among those changes is language that gives new discretion to federal managers to stop a mine if they determine it is harming public lands.

"That means I can spend hundreds of millions of dollars (on exploration and development) and then it gets to the end of this project and the BLM can say 'Oh-oh, doesn't fit,"' Borell said. "That's just too much uncertainty. People are not going to operate on federal land."

If the Bush administration wants to review such issues, though, it may have to hurry.

Rep. Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat, successfully amended the House version of the Interior appropriations bill recently with language that could stop the Bush review and force BLM to keep the Clinton-era rules.

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