Guest Opinions

Idaho mines face unnecessary threat due to EPA bonding requirements

Phillips S. Baker
Phillips S. Baker

Mining continues to be a significant part of the Idaho economy. Precious metals such as gold and silver, along with lead, zinc and molybdenum, help to drive Idaho’s productive sector, contributing more than $1 billion to our state’s economy, including $500 million in payroll.

Unfortunately, a number of our state’s mining operations could face a real threat, thanks to an unnecessary new proposal from the EPA that seeks to duplicate existing financial assurance requirements for mine reclamation.

Currently, Idaho, like other mining states, has developed specific programs to evaluate and approve the financial assurances required for mining companies. Idaho has a strong interest in seeing that its natural resources are adequately protected, and so, not only does the state employ staff to appraise and calculate individual requirements, but it does so in conjunction with federal laws overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service.

This system has worked well for decades, with federal and state laws evolving along the way to rectify any deficiencies and to ensure that the highest level of environmental protection is achieved. And notably, over the past 30 years, no hard-rock mine in Idaho has defaulted on its financial assurances leading to a mine that was not closed and reclaimed in accordance with its reclamation plan or the available financial guarantees.

Now, however, the EPA is developing a new rule to require additional financial assurance for the hard-rock mining industry. Like many regulations this one sounds reasonable — except that it’s already being done, and what EPA is proposing is simply redundant.

Such a heavy-handed approach has raised the concerns of state governors and congressional committees already overseeing exactly these regulations. “Why do we need a new layer of federal regulation when current law already provides the insurance that the public expects?” They worry that not only has the EPA failed to study the issue thoroughly, but the imposition of a duplicative financial assurance requirement could put a number of mines out of business.

As just one example, Hecla Mining Company, a 125-year-old silver mining company, has successfully permitted, built, and closed multiple mines in Idaho, bringing much needed economic benefit to the state. However, with the drain on financial resources posed by these new requirements, it’s less likely we could have built these mines at all.

What’s particularly troubling is that the nation’s existing mineral mines provide an absolutely crucial array of resources needed to help domestic manufacturers compete in the 21st century economy. Copper, zinc, gold, silver and molybdenum are crucial for the construction of hybrid cars, solar panels, electronics and wind turbines. But America is now completely import-dependent for 19 key minerals and more than 50 percent dependent for another 24 important minerals. The last thing Idaho needs is a new layer of federal regulations that makes mining more difficult, or deepens our already dangerous dependency on foreign mineral supplies. In our state, several thousand good-paying jobs could be at risk.

Phillips S. Baker is CEO of Hecla Mining Company, based in Coeur d’Alene.