- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The Interior Department has overturned a Clinton administration opinion that reduced the amount of land for waste from mining operations, rolling back another environmental decision made under President Bush’s predecessor.

The department said its solicitor general under Mr. Clinton had misinterpreted the 1872 Mining Law by concluding that each 20-acre mining claim on federal land is limited to a single 5-acre waste site.

The mining industry and the Interior Department under Secretary Gale A. Norton have blamed the earlier opinion for a significant drop in U.S. mineral exploration, mine development and mining jobs since 1997. Mrs. Norton approved the reversal on Wednesday and the decision was released yesterday.

The old opinion had the effect of either reducing the amount of land a mining operation can use to dump waste — including cyanide and other chemicals used to separate ore from rock — or reducing the size of the mining operation itself.

The new opinion by Deputy Solicitor Roderick Walston says each waste site is still limited to 5 acres, but how many may exist on each claim is not limited.

“The Mining Law has sufficient flexibility to allow for evolving mining practices,” Mr. Walston wrote in an Oct. 8 memorandum obtained by the Associated Press.

Congress passed the law “to encourage development of the nation’s mineral resources, and a limitation of one [waste] site per mining claim would frustrate that congressional purpose,” he said.

Since the Clinton-era opinion, U.S. mineral exploration has dropped 57 percent and mine development declined 54 percent, Assistant Interior Secretary Rebecca Watson said yesterday.

“It created an atmosphere of uncertainty and when you are making investments of hundreds of millions of dollars, uncertainty is not something you want to face,” Miss Watson said.

Environmentalists have long opposed the bulk of the Civil War-era Mining Law, saying it is an antiquated law that gives public resources to private mining companies for a fraction of their value. They claimed a rare victory when ex-solicitor John Leshy issued his opinion in 1997 and applied it to an open-pit gold mine in northern Washington state.

Environmentalists have been highly critical of Mr. Bush’s policies on a number of fronts, from easing air pollution standards to relaxing forest protections.

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