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Stricter cleanup rules for mining industry?

February 26, 2009 |  9:36 pm


The EPA must close a 29-year loophole that made it possible for polluting industries to avoid paying for hazardous-waste cleanups by declaring bankruptcy, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

The mining industry, which generates more than 2 billion pounds of toxic waste each year — and is among the EPA's list of top polluters — may be the most affected by the decision.

In New Mexico, conservationists tried for years to get the Molycorp/Chevron molybdenum mine near Questa to clean up toxins released into the Red River and ground water. In 2002, Molycorp set aside $152 million for a cleanup job that could cost up to $400 million. Environmentalists argued that the company would have been more careful if it had known it would be held responsible for cleanup costs.

"This victory will encourage mine operators to act more responsibly, hopefully preventing future problems in New Mexico," said Brian Shields of Amigos Bravos, one of four environmental groups that sued the EPA over its failure to issue "financial assurance regulations," which would have held companies financially accountable for cleaning up contaminated sites.

The loophole has existed since 1980, when the Superfund law was passed with the understanding that lawmakers would put financial assurance regulations in place within three years. Those regulations were never enacted.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that the EPA has until May 4 to identify the industries that will be subject to the regulations.

"By not promulgating financial assurance requirements, EPA has allowed companies that otherwise might not have been able to operate and produce hazardous waste to potentially shift the responsibility for cleaning up hazardous waste to taxpayers," Judge Alsup wrote in the ruling.

Environmental advocates hope the decision will help pave the way for federal laws requiring industries to post bonds to cover the cost of potential future cleanups.

"New standards will push companies that deal with toxic substances towards more responsible practices," said Jan Hasselman, an Earthjustice attorney who argued the case on behalf of the environmental groups.

— Catherine Ho

Photo: Jeff Gentner / Associated Press