Alaska's miners need to go back to work
The issuance of a permit to mine ought to be a routine where the conditions are harsh, and risk of adverse impacts are few
Last updated 5/28/2020 at 9:35am
If I were to write a letter to the President of the United States, it would probably go something like this:
Dear Mr. President – Notwithstanding the aggressive Executive Orders that you have signed dealing with the regulatory burden on small businesses in the United States, it appears that you have missed an important point.
Regulatory requirements are straitjackets on the economy, and one size simply does not fit all. Over the past 50 years, the Executive Branch has imposed innumerable demands on our domestic mining industry. Many of these demands have resulted in unnecessary and expensive non-productive delays in bringing mineral commodities to market.
The problem is not the people of the government, but the mandates those bureaucrats are charged with implementing. In a word, the scientist inside a regulatory agency has no accountability to the broader economy.
Not unlike the tension that has surfaced with the covid-19 pandemic, American miners have been straining at the bit to go back to work, even in the face of credible and authoritative guidance to the contrary.
In the case of the "vid", the risk of spreading possibly fatal infection is apparently substantial but possibly controllable with certain minimal safeguards. In the case of mining, no one challenges the science, but the known risks can be contained. The trick in each case is to strike the best balance under the circumstances.
To illustrate, a knowledgeable and experienced placer mine operator in Nome recently applied for a permit to undertake a new operation on some patented ground. The ground was sold by the United States to the original purchasers under the Mining Law of 1872, specifically to be mined.
Nonetheless, because some of the miner's 49 acres included "wetlands" as that term is currently defined – notably "wet" is not necessarily a part of the definition – the U. S. Corps of Engineers became the lead agency in ensuring that all relevant federal and state environmental laws were going to be complied with.
This obligation specifically includes notice to State and federal agencies and the general public inviting comments and objections. In this case an email was sent to over 100 individuals and entities. Under the applicable regulations, each recipient is entitled to a reasonable opportunity to respond. Predictably, the number of respondents to this notice was very small.
The point remains, the necessity for significant public involvement in a project of this dismissive magnitude, and the concomitant delay, essentially waiting for the paint to dry, conceivably cost the affected miners essential working days in an environment in which the operating window is extremely tight.
Mr. President, there needs to be a reconsideration of this interagency consultation process for small projects. There is virtually no conceivable reason why, at least in this context, the issuance of the requested permit should take more than a day.
Specifically, the area in question is in the heart of a placer mining district in which the climate ensures that virtually any impact on the land or water will be trivial due to the extreme conditions that prevail for roughly half the year.
While arguably there may be public resources that are briefly compromised, the land and waters of concern are so finite and remote that it is a manifestation of incompetence and a waste of taxpayer dollars for the government to delay such a minor project.
Nome is not in a densely populated part of the world. The miners and fishermen who work there cannot compete with the ambient conditions when it comes to environmental impact. Collateral factors such as endangered species or historic preservation sites on this modest tract simply do not outweigh the economic contribution that even a small miner can make to the community in terms of locally acquired goods and services as well as taxes, fees and wages that ensue from a successful operation.
This is not to challenge the desirability of government attention to industrial applications in terms of the health and safety of workers and the endemic sensitivity to environmental conditions. But the social contribution that mines make in the community establishes that, despite oppressive governmental oversight, the U.S. in general and Alaska in particular is a very desirable place to produce basic commodities.
The question posed, relates more to superfluous regulatory delay – delay that can be ameliorated by the delegation of discretion to the front lines. It doesn't take 100 commentators to say whether a modest mining operation in a district that has been extensively mined for over 120 years can proceed to production.
To be clear, the argument is not against licensing, nor is it against reasonable stipulations on the permits to address known issues. It is simply a request that indefensible delays be excised from the application process.
Mr. President, the ball is in your court.