Obama again looks pretty much like Bush, this time allowing mining companies to dump toxic waste on public land

In my post on the week’s biggest enviro news – Obama’s massive expansion of offshore oil drilling – I noted that increasingly, Obama's environmental decisions are indistinguishable from those made by the previous inhabitant of the White House. Nothing demonstrates that better than this week’s biggest sleeper enviro news: Obama approving dumping of small mountains of toxic waste on public land.

It’s all related to the General Mining Law of 1872, which even today gives mining companies access to gold, silver and other precious metals on public land – without asking the mining firms to pay anything to the public for the minerals taken off public land.

Obama's decision this week – which has gotten very little attention – backs the  Bush administration's stance: allow mining companies to use large amounts of land around their mines to dump mining waste laced with all kinds of nasty stuff.

To really get the picture of how industrial-scale gold mining is done in America today, you have to understand that whole hillsides are ground to dust and then doused with cyanide to extract the tiny percentages of gold contained in the ore.

After that, these whole hillsides worth of dirt have to go somewhere. Miners want to use public land for that. The Bush administration said OK. This week, so did the Obama administration, acting in a case in which enviros challenged a Bush-era decision allowing the waste dumping on so-called “millsite” land around the actual mine.

Feds dump mine waste in Idaho flood plain

The Northwest News Network produced this fantastic story for KUOW News about how the federal stimulus package has sped up the disposal of arsenic- and lead-contaminated mine spoils on a flood plain off I-90 in Northern Idaho.

The East Mission Flats Repository is a Superfund site designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to receive the remains of Idaho's toxic mining history despite being in a floodplain inundated just last year.  Community groups are concerned that the area will flood again, spreading more toxic metals into state waters.

The pile of waste will stand up to 34 feet high within view from where Idaho's oldest building stands in the Old Mission State Park, sacred to both the Coeur d'Alene Indians and the Jesuits.

Oklahoma firm stakes massive AK mining claim, angering natives

Wow. What's shaping up as another fractious Alaskan mining battle -- possibly as contentious as those already raging on the Pebble and Kensington mines--  just hit the headlines today.

It's a little puzzling that this supposed $35 billion gold find in Southeast Alaska -- that's a huge find, if true -- has induced only three short news stories since emerging this morning in the Juneau Empire. That's particularly true considering that this one seems destined to cause a lot of controversy, as  some of the land claimed by Oklahoma City-based Geohedral LLC is revered as sacred by Native Americans. Not to mention that people living in the area, near Yukatat, are heavily dependent on fisheries that they are pretty sure are going to be hurt by the mining. Many are subsistence fishermen.

However, Herb Mee Jr., president of The Beard Co., which owns a 23 percent stake in Geohedral, told Eric Morrison of the Empire:

We envision no environmental problems in what we will be doing.

Now, as we have previously documented, hardrock mines like this have a history of going great guns when metals prices are high -- gold's now trading at nearly $1,000 an ounce, representing roughly a quadrupling in price in the last decade -- and then going belly up when metals prices drop. Our work also showed that sometimes, these mines stick taxpayers with massive cleanup bills.

That's what locals in Yukatat fear. Said Raymond Sensmeier, a fisherman and member of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe Council:

We're deeply concerned ...

They call it Fubar, and it shows how restoring forests creates jobs

Fubar is the name of a stream on Alaska's Prince of Wales Island, and apparently it's appropriately named. FUBAR, of course, is an acronym meaning "Fouled up beyond all recognition," or something pretty close to that, anyway.

It's the central scene in a news story by Mary Pemberton of the Associated Press outlining how restoration efforts in the national forests are helping restore jobs in places let down by the timber industry across the West:

Forest restoration is occurring all over the West, said Mary Mitsos with the National Forest Foundation, a Montana-based group. Efforts in Montana, Alaska, Washington and Oregon involve repairing watersheds to encourage healthier fish runs. In Arizona and New Mexico, restoration is more about forest thinning to lessen the danger of wildfires.

At Fubar Creek, soil washed into the waterway from clearcuts upslope, filling it in and causing the water to go all over the place, including a nearby road.  The restoration there in the Tongass National Forest and elsewhere in southeastern Alaska added $8.4 million and 150 jobs to the economy in 2007, according to a study by The Nature Conservancy.

Pemberton quotes Marnie Criley, coordinator of the Montana Forest Restoration Committee:

People are getting to know each other and not automatically hating each other because this person is a timber person and this person is a conservationist. A lot of trust-building has been going on.

We should point out that this is not a new trend. In fact, we wrote about enviros making peace with loggers and agreeing to some logging in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest back in 2004.

Nor does this mean peace is breaking out in the War In the Woods.

One mining firm fined as another ups its Pebble bet by $10 million

We didn't have to point out the juxtaposition of one Alaskan mining firm being fined for environmental violations -- notwithstanding the industry's claim that modern mining methods obviate environmental harm -- as another upped its bet to open a massive new mine in The Last Frontier state.

No, the editorial writers at the Anchorage Daily News caught that one for us.

Firm No. 1 is Teck Alaska, which was just fined for wastewater violations at its Red Dog Mine near Kotzebue. It's a subsidiary of Teck Cominco, a firm based just across the Canadian border and upstream from Washington's Lake Roosevelt, which the firm also has polluted. This despite the mining industry's characterization of regulations as a "belt-and-suspenders" system to protect the environment.

Firm No. 2 is Northern Dynasty Mines Inc., which is boosting its budget for the Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska by $10 million, to $70 million. Opponents point out that the proposed mine is upstream from Bristol Bay, where they fear mining pollution will severely curtail the salmon harvest.

Here's what the Daily News' opinion writers had to say about the situation.

We're told Alaska has strong mining laws that will ensure Pebble is benign. Experience with Red Dog suggests those laws have failed to prevent significant trouble....

No mine -- or any other industrial operation -- is going to run flawlessly, even with the best training and intentions and vigilant enforcement.

While we're rounding up pollution news in the 49th state, we also should note that BP just got fined $1.7 million for inadequate oil spill protection at Prudhoe Bay.

-- Robert McClure

Keep Bristol Bay area closed to mining, Alaska groups say

Sportsmen, businesses and conservationists in Alaska banded together this week to send a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar requesting he block a plan that would open nearly 1 million acres to potential oil and gas leasing and mining, reports Elizabeth Bluemink of the Anchorage Daily News. The plan to open federal land in the Bristol Bay region would harm rivers and streams that support already-troubled populations of salmon, the groups say.

The Bureau of Land Management is behind the plan to open the land, although studies it issued last year indicate the nearly 1 million acres "didn't appear to contain valuable resources." This has many questioning the validity of the studies, since the land is downriver from the highly-valuable proposed Pebble Mine. Critics ask: If the land doesn't have viable mineral deposits, why open it to mining?

The BLM says reasons to keep the land closed are outdated. The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act created native corporations in Alaska and allowed them to select parcels of holdings before anyone else could stake claims. Now that most of the parcels have been divvied up, the BLM doesn't see the point in waiting longer before leasing remaining lands. Those in favor of opening the land counter that the sportfishermen wouldn't have hooks if it wasn't for mining.

It all comes down to resource value. Competing interests for mines, dams, recreation and wildlife habitat have been exacerbated by recent concerns over salmon population declines throughout the Pacific Northwest. This has led to some surprising partnerships, like the one between loggers and environmentalists as InvestigateWest reported earlier.

Pacific Northwest salmon populations shift dramatically

As Vancouver, B.C., watches Fraser River stocks of sockeye fail, the count of steelhead passing the Bonneville Dam in Vancouver, Wash., is soaring. And while low Alaskan Yukon runs of king and chum salmon predict a devastating winter for subsistence fishermen, salmon are even making a comeback in the Seine, as InvestigateWest reported last week. What differences could account for these drastic population changes?

Multiple environmental factors could be affecting populations. Warmer weather can heat up rivers, especially those overdrawn by humans, and discourage the cold-water-loving fish from heading upstream. Shifting ocean currents or other predator influences could be altering food sources. Pollutants from stormwater can accumulate in the fish. Overfishing can deplete numbers. Sea lice from farmed salmon could be transferring to wild salmon, weakening them and increasing the likelihood of succumbing to disease or predators. Even superb returns from previous years could be problematic, as too many fish spawning and then decomposing could produce excess bacteria, possibly resulting in disease.

Mining industry wraps itself in a green flag to fight reform of 1872 Mining Law

Ah, we have to chuckle when we see the latest enthusiasts to stand up in favor of combating climate change: the mining industry.

nw-mng-assn-logoHere's the deal: Laura Skaer, director of the Spokane-based Northwest Mining Association, explained recently that mining companies are fighting White House and Congressional efforts to impose a royalty on hardrock mines on public land. 

Such a move would bring firms that dig up gold, silver and the like on public land into the same category as those that unearth coal and oil on federal property: They'd pay at least a small fraction of what the minerals are worth to the government. Imposing royalties would end what's widely viewed -- even inside the mining industry -- as one of the most anachronistic features of the 1872 Mining Law.

Skaer told to Stephanie Simon of The Wall Street Journal that zinc, molybdenum and other minerals covered by the 137-year-old law are going to be needed for wind turbines, solar panels and other weapons in the fight against global warming. Impose a royalty? No way, Skaer says:

Then we've traded our dependence on Mideast oil for a dependence on foreign minerals.

A proposal by Rep. Nick Rahall -- a Democrat from coal country, West Virginia, where there's lotsa tusslin' about mining, but where at least the government gets cash for the coal taken from public land -- is pushing for an 8 percent royalty. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who has some hardrock mines in his state, New Mexico, is looking at 2 percent to 5 percent royalty.