US court upholds miners’ rights to explore on federal lands

Sculpture of Miners, Wallace, Idaho. Stock image.

The US District Court for the District of Columbia issued a decision this week in Earthworks vs. Department of Interior (DOI) that reaffirmed miners’ rights to explore and operate on federal lands pursuant to the Mining Law.

A coalition of environmental groups: Earthworks, High Country Citizens’ Alliance, Great Basin Resource Watch, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, and the Western Shoshone Defense Project challenged two DOI regulations, asserting that the regulations improperly interpreted the Mining Law.

Specifically, the groups challenged two mining-related rules issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), part of the US Department of the Interior. The plaintiffs alleged that the rules were not promulgated in compliance with various statutory authorities, including the General Mining Law of 1872, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act, according to court documents.

A coalition of environmental groups challenged two DOI regulations, asserting that the regulations improperly interpreted the Mining Law

The National Mining Association (NMA), who intervened in the case on behalf of DOI, said the environmental groups sought to invalidate regulations from 2003 and 2008, which would have would have eroded necessary business certainty, upending the claim approval process and preventing access to lands needed for the support facilities necessary to operate a mine.

“As implemented, the claim system tolerates a degree of uncertainty (or, at least, the language used to describe the legal status of a claim is not always precise). Formally speaking, a claim is valid against the United States only if there is a valuable mineral deposit within the limits of the claim … (providing that ‘no location of a mining claim shall be made until the discovery of the vein or lode within the limits of the claim located’)”, court documents read.

The coalition asked the court to enjoin and declare invalid portions of two rules issued by the BLM and Interior.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged the 2008 Mining Claim Rule and related policies violate the Mining Law and the FLPMA by improperly restricting the application of the FLMPA’s fair market valuation mandate, the 2003 Mill Site Rule and related policies violate the Mining Law by allowing excessive mill site acreage, the 2003 Rule and the 2008 Rule violate National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by not adequately providing for review and public comment, and the 2003 Mill Site Rule violates the notice-and-comment requirements of the APA by departing radically from the 1999 Proposed Rule.

The court upheld the DOI regulations as consistent with past practice and reasonable interpretations of the Mining Law.

The court rejected the plaintiffs’ last argument that the BLM violated NEPA by not giving the public an opportunity to comment on the Environmental Assessment.

Rich Nolan, NMA President and CEO said in a media release that the ruling is an important signal to those seeking to obstruct responsible domestic mining projects.

“The certainty provided by this decision comes at a critically important time for our country,” said Nolan. “The pandemic has exposed the dangers of our increasingly import-dependent supply chain – dependence that has doubled over the past two decades even though we have significant mineral deposits within our borders.”