The administration asked a federal judge Tuesday to dismiss a challenge by environmental and community groups to a rule that lifted a restriction on how much public land companies can use. The groups are also challenging a 2008 rule that says companies aren't required to pay the going rate to use the land.
Environmentalists said the administration's decision conflicts with its pledge to overhaul the nearly 140-year-old law regulating the mining of gold, silver and other hard-rock minerals on public land.
"The Obama administration can't have it both ways," said Jane Danowitz of the Pew Environment Group in Washington. "Either it stands by its earlier commitment to bringing mining law into the 21st Century, or it continues to allow the industry to dump unlimited toxic waste on public land at the expense of taxpayers and the environment."
National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston said Friday that her group is pleased with the Obama administration's decision to support the Bush policy.
"It's a necessary provision to conducting mining in the West," Raulston said.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees minerals on federal lands, declined to comment because of the pending litigation, spokesman Matt Spangler said.
The dispute stems from the interpretation and enforcement of the 1872 mining law, which has changed little since Ulysses S. Grant was president. The law made it easy to stake claims and buy public land for mining, in part to encourage westward expansion.
Critics of the law argue it is outdated and was never intended for the large mining operations that tie up thousands of acres of federal land in the West without paying fair market value. The Clinton administration, in its waning days in 2000, issued a policy saying that mining companies' use of land should follow the law's ratio of 5 acres for processing and waste for every 20 acres of mining claims.
The Bush administration quickly eliminated the acreage restriction and issued a rule in 2008 saying that companies don't have to pay fair market value for public land not directly used for mining. The policy came despite a 2003 decision by the U.S. District Court in Washington that companies should pay the going rate.
Mining companies already pay rock-bottom prices to stake claims or buy public land for hard-rock mining, critics say. The 1872 law also gives preference to mining over other uses of the land, they say.
"This would be the perfect opportunity to reform the law," said Jeff Parsons, an attorney with the Colorado-based Western Mining Project, which is representing the groups challenging the Bush-era policy. "It's a disappointment to see them defending what are illegal and poorly analyzed rules."