The Environmental Protection Agency, complying with a court order, will develop a rule to guarantee companies that mine everything from copper to uranium will pay for needed environmental cleanup, not taxpayers.
The announcement on Monday comes in the wake of a federal judge's order in February requiring the EPA to close loopholes that allow some companies to get out of paying for such costly cleanups when they file bankruptcy.
The agency said it will develop similar financial responsibility requirements for other types of operations but started with hardrock mining because of the size of the operations, the amount of waste and the number of mining sites on its Superfund's national priorities list.
The EPA did not release specifics on how it will establish financial assurance requirements but said it will propose the rule by spring 2011. An e-mail message asking the agency for more details was not answered.
The National Mining Association trade group said the industry already is regulated by other state and federal laws establishing financial responsibility for cleanup.
"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ignored critical facts and used inappropriate data in singling out U.S. hardrock mining for financial assurance requirements under Superfund," association CEO Hal Quinn said in a statement.
The EPA's announcement came a day before a Senate hearing on proposed changes to a 137-year-old hardrock mining law that would bolster environmental restrictions and implement royalties.
Under the existing law, private companies haven't paid royalties to taxpayers for an estimated $245 billion worth of minerals extracted from public lands in more than a century. It also allows companies to buy public land for as little as $2.50 an acre.
In 2008, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups sued the EPA, arguing it failed to establish financial responsibility mandates as required under the Superfund act.
Among the cases they cited were 94 Superfund sites in 21 states operated by Asarco, which filed bankruptcy in 2005; the Smoky Canyon Mine in southeastern Idaho, and a molybdenum mine near Questa, N.M.
Earthjustice Attorney Jan Hasselman, who handled the lawsuit, called the EPA's decision "an important first step."