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Publisher: Stephen Lee - Bloomberg Environment

Hardrock Mines Need Faster Environmental Review, Forest Service Says

The Trump administration is planning another way to speed up mining projects, this time by streamlining the Forest Service’s environmental reviews for new hardrock mines.

The move is consistent with President Donald Trump’s broader push to cut red tape for new mines.

On Sept. 13, the Forest Service will publish a notice in the Federal Register asking the public to comment on ways to speed up its review of prospecting, exploring, developing, and reclaiming proposed mines. The Forest Service specifically mentioned uranium and thorium as minerals that could benefit from a faster review process.

Making the review process more efficient “should enhance operators’ interest in, and willingness to, conduct exploratory operations on National Forest System lands, and ultimately increase the production of critical minerals,” the Forest Service wrote.

The agency said it wants to consider a faster process for reviewing proposed mines that affect five acres or less. One reason the Forest Service can’t move faster is because of the low quality of information submitted by mining companies, the agency said.

It also wants to encourage meetings between the companies and Forest Service officials before a proposed plan is submitted.

The Forest Service also said it lacks administrative tools to address mine plan changes and noncompliance issues, as well as ways of ensuring that proposed plans reclamation plans.

Although the Forest Service issues environmental permits, it has no authority to actually deny mining permits for the 193 million acres of land it manages.

In December 2017, Trump issued an executive order directing federal agencies to find ways of streamlining the leasing and permitting processes for critical minerals. Earlier, in March 2017, Trump issued an order to promote energy independence and economic growth.

‘We Can Do Better’

Permitting is the “biggest bottleneck to getting something in operation,” Mitchell Krebs, president of silver-mining giant Coeur Mining, Inc., said.

“I want a robust review, but I just want it done in a way that can give us some predictability and help us invest here, rather than some other country,” Krebs told Bloomberg Environment last month.

The Trump administration has taken a “much more constructive approach toward permitting” Krebs said. “Not that there are any shortcuts, but it’s become a bit more responsive and streamlined. There seems to be a mandate now to push things along in a much more common sense way.”

The National Mining Association is “supportive of any efforts that will help streamline reviews. As our country becomes more and more import-dependent, and permitting processes stretch to and even beyond 10 years—one of the longest mine permitting processes in the world—it’s clear that we need a better path forward,” spokeswoman Ashley Burke said.

Like Krebs, Burke cited “uncertainties and delays arising from duplication among federal and state agencies, the absence of firm timelines for completing environmental assessments, and failures in coordination of responsibilities between various agencies.”

“The Trump administration’s desire to expedite review and approval of mines in our national forests is part of the larger Trump agenda to put industry interests ahead of the public interest,” Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel at Earthworks, told Bloomberg Environment. “This is yet another attempt to shift pollution’s costs from the polluters to the taxpayers, the environment, and future generations.”

Avoiding a ‘Butt Kicking’?

The fact that the Forest Service published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking, rather than simply issuing proposed rules, shows that it’s making an extra effort to be careful after a string of court losses, said Rena Steinzor, an administrative law professor at the University of Maryland.

“From that perspective, they’re taking care and people will have a chance to dispute it, so that’s a good thing. But it’s not a generous thing, necessarily, because they’ve been just getting their butts kicked in court,” Steinzor told Bloomberg Environment.

 

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bloombergenvironment.com

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