September 03, 2020

Udall, McCollum Demand Answers from EPA After Agency Reorganizes Hardrock Mining Office Without Congressional Authorization

Top Democrats on committees overseeing Interior funding remind Administrator Wheeler that House and Senate must approve agency reorganization in move potentially undercutting abandoned mine cleanup

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, and U.S. Representative Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and Environment, sent a letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler demanding answers after EPA notified the committees of a reorganization and relocation of the agency’s offices overseeing abandoned hardrock mine cleanup to Lakewood, Colo. There are thousands of abandoned hardrock mines in the U.S.—which produced minerals like gold, copper and uranium—throughout the country, many of which leak toxic pollution into rivers and streams across the country. 

Wheeler’s office notified congressional committees of the agency’s reorganization of offices in charge of abandoned hardrock mine cleanup despite the law mandating that government agencies must obtain approval from Congress before implementing any reorganization or reprogramming of existing funds. The new office, called the “Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains”, would reorganize the agency in charge of overseeing cleanup of abandoned hardrock mine sites that pose a human health, physical safety, or environmental risk to the American public.

“Hardrock mining has left a longstanding legacy on the land and its inhabitants, including indigenous people,” the lawmakers wrote. “We appreciate your interest in remediation and cleanup of hardrock mining and we look forward to evaluating your proposals for improving cleanup efforts, including any suggestions you may have to structure Agency operations to maximize operational efficiency and effectiveness. 

“We remind you that section 426 of Public Law 116-94, the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020, requires the advance approval by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees prior to the implementation of any Agency reorganizations or reprogrammings of funds,” the lawmakers continued. “This reorganization is a significant departure from how hardrock mining remediation is currently handled at the Agency and therefore must first be evaluated by the Appropriations Committees. 

“As required by law and established by longstanding precedent of comity among our Committees and the Agency, we expect you to comply with the requirements laid out in the fiscal year 2020 appropriations for the Agency and to suspend the implementation of this reorganization pending our Committees’ review and approval,” the lawmakers concluded.

Udall and McCollum have sponsored the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act, bicameral legislation that would modernize the nation’s badly antiquated hardrock mining laws. The bill would require mining companies to pay royalties for the first time for the ability to extract mineral resources like gold, silver, and copper from public lands, help ensure that taxpayers aren’t on the hook for cleaning up abandoned mines, and would seek to prevent further toxic spills or environmental degradation from abandoned mine sites. 

The full text of the letter can be found here.