A Cynical Advantage

Anti-environmental riders shut down public debate and usually provide gifts to Congress' special interest friends.


Marty Hayden & Heather Weiner
Earthjustice DC, 202/667-4500

Congress’ most ardent practitioners of stealth attacks on our environment have reached a new low in cynically attempting to take advantage of the human tragedy playing out in Kosovo, as well as the victims of Hurricane Mitch. Unlike the flaying about we witnessed regarding where Congress stands on military action in Kosovo, Congressional supporters of the mining, oil, and other industries are operating with absolute certainty when it comes to delivering a new round of sweetheart deals for their special interest “friends.” As if they hadn’t learned the lessons of the last 4 years of funding battles with the President, Congress is secretly loading up the emergency appropriations bills with more dangerous anti-environmental riders. The completed package will be in conference committee negotiations as soon as Tuesday and will be scheduled for a final vote in the House and Senate later next week.

The public and the President have expressed nothing but disgust for Congress’ addiction to backdoor, stealth attacks on the environment. Anti-environmental riders shut down public debate and usually provide gifts to Congress’ special interest friends.


As every school child knows, you cannot protect wildlife unless you protect its habitat. But Sen. Domenici (R-NM) must have been absent that day, because he has expressed his intent to undermine a key provision of the Endangered Species Act — critical habitat. According to his staff, Sen. Domenici intends to have a rider inserted in conference that would either stop the designation of critical habitat for the highly endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow or halt all critical habitat designations nationwide. Critical habitat applies only to federal actions, not private lands, but it is a crucial recovery tool that provides us with the information and certainty needed to rehabilitate and delist our nation’s endangered and threatened wildlife.


The antiquated 1872 Hardrock Mining Law has evaded real environmental and fiscal reform for 127 years. Now, Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) is about to be ask his colleagues to insert a rider in conference that would expand it to allow more dumping of mine waste on public lands. This rider is a giveaway to the mining industry intended to benefit most immediately the Battle Mountain Gold Company, which wants to operate a large, open-pit, cyanide-leach gold mine in eastern Washington State. The Departments of Interior and Agriculture recently denied this mine its operating permit because it violated even the archaic 1872 mining law in terms of the amount of public land it would require for massive waste rock pile dumps (milling sites). These waste dumps would pollute surface and groundwater resources with acid mine drainage and heavy metals, such as arsenic. Sen. Gorton’s rider would attempt to override that decision in hopes of preventing the administration from stopping future mining operations that similarly seek to acquire more public lands to damage.


This rider, currently in the Senate’s Hurricane Mitch bill, would completely overturn an agreement that was reached last fall between Congress and the Administration, which authorized a phase-out of commercial fishing in some areas of the park, while protecting fishermen and park resources. If adopted, the rider would open Glacier Bay National Park to heavy commercial fishing, including waters designated as “Wilderness” by the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (with the exception of the Beardslee Islands and Upper Dundas Bay), without any federal safeguards.


The Senate bill’s oil royalty language will delay until October 1999 the implementation of an oil valuation rule by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) to make the largest oil companies pay their fare share of royalties for the oil they extract from public lands. A portion of this royalty revenue funds environmental programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund and state public education programs. The MMS has estimated that delay of this rule costs taxpayers $66 million – $100 million each year.


This Senate bill rider prevents the Bureau of Land Management from issuing its final hardrock mining regulations until 4 months after the issuance of a National Academy of Sciences study, which will not be completed until July 31, 1999. Driven by the mining industry, this delay, along with two previous mining riders, will sideline new environmental protections for more than a year. Final protections are needed to stop irresponsible mining practices, to allow the government to consider other values (such as aesthetics, water quality) when considering approval of mine permits, and to prevent mining companies from abandoning their depleted mines and leaving taxpayers with the cleanup bill..

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