It's the latest move by the Bush administration to overturn environmental regulations issued during the final days of the Clinton presidency.
The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management announced Wednesday it will seek to undo regulations forcing more hard-rock miners in the West to post cleanup bonds.
The Environmental Protection Agency, also responding to complaints from mining interests, on Tuesday suspended standards aimed at reducing the levels of cancer-causing arsenic in some 3,000 municipal water systems, primarily in the Rocky Mountains. Mining runoff has been identified as a major source of arsenic contamination in drinking water supplies.
New Mexico Republican Rep. Joe Skeen is applauding the move, claiming that "there is no clear scientific data and consensus to support a proposed level of arsenic for drinking water."
Not so, says Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, who says the science is clear that arsenic causes cancer. CBS News Capitol Hill Correspondent Bob Fuss reports the South Dakota lawmaker calls the Bush administration decision "baffling, just baffling" and vows that the matter will be revisited "in some way in the not too distant future."
"At this point it appears the only people who have keys to the White House are polluters," says Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the senior Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
But Reid agrees with the president on the proposal to undo the hard-rock mining regulations that Reid has long opposed. "Bush can't be wrong all the time," Reid said, pointing to mining as the second-largest industry in his state.
The actions follow President Bush's reversal last week of his campaign promise to begin treating carbon dioxide emissions as a pollutant and contributor to global warming.
Meanwhile, a federal judge in Boise, Idaho, on Tuesday rejected the administration's effort to delay a ban implemented three days before Clinton left office on new roads and virtually all logging on 58.5 million acres of national forest.
The Justice Department last Friday asked the court to delay a hearing scheduled for March 30 on Idaho's request for a preliminary injunction blocking the roadless rules. Government lawyers had proposed suspending the ban, more than two years in the planning and announced in early January, until Idaho's challenge was resolved.
"This is essentially the fourth time in eight days the Bush administration has caved to special interests and put the environment at risk," said Lexi Shultz, a staff attorney for U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
The EPA said it was revoking the Clinton administration rule to reduce allowable levels of arsenic in drinking water by 80 percent so it can review the science and costs. But environmentalists said the science behind the rule was well-established.
The new drinking water rule was intended to update an arsenic standard that has been in effect for nearly 60 years. It would have cut the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion.
But the EPA also announced Tuesday it would abide by rather than challenge a consent decree to toughen pesticide regulations that the agency signed with environmental groups and farm workers the day before President Clinton left office.
Agency officials said its lawyers had told EPA Administrator Christie Whitman she had little flexibility on the issue. The agency, however, said it would take a new look at some of the risk assessments in re-evaluating pesticides.
The ew regulations on hard-rock mining were issued late last year but were not put into effect until Jan. 20, Mr. Clinton's last day in office.
"There were definitely some parts of the regulations that would have had a very chilling effect on mineral development," said Russ Fields, president of the Nevada Mining Association based in Reno.
The BLM's so-called revised 3809 regulations gave the government new authority to prohibit new mine sites on federal land. The restrictions would remain in effect until July when the BLM anticipates publishing new regulations that could lift the prohibitions.
The regulations require miners of gold, silver, uranium, copper, lead, zinc and molybdenum on federal claims to post a bond guaranteeing they will clean up after themselves. The reclamation bond must be equal to 100 percent of the estimated cleanup cost.
The new regulations also give BLM's land managers the right to deny a mining permit under some circumstances and to enforce standards for assuring that groundwater supplies aren't contaminated.
"People have raised concerns about the new rules on both policy and legal grounds," acting BLM Director Nina Rose Hatfield said. "If there are legitimate issues which need to be addressed, we should do so sooner rather than later."
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