Environmental groups sue EPA for abandoning hard rock mining rule

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on the proposed budget estimates and justification for FY2019 for the Environmental Protection Agency on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Six environmental groups on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt for abandoning a rule that would have forced hard-rock mining companies to prove they have enough money up front to clean up hazardous substances released at mine sites.

The groups, which include Earthjustice, Earthworks and the Sierra Club, filed the lawsuit in the District of Columbia Circuit Court to force the EPA to finalize a regulation mandating financial requirements for mining companies.

They argued that across the U.S. West many abandoned former mine sites remain polluted and harm public health. When mining firms go bankrupt, they leave the burden of cleaning up to the taxpayer, costing millions or billions of dollars.

“The mining industry should not be allowed to stick taxpayers with the cleanup costs for their operations,” said Bonnie Gestring, Northwest Program director at Earthworks.

In December, the EPA decided to abandon the rulemaking process after determining that modern industry practices already address risks from operating hard-rock mining facilities.

“Additional financial assurance requirements are unnecessary and would impose an undue burden on this important sector of the American economy and rural America, where most of these mining jobs are based,” Pruitt said in December when he announced his decision.

The EPA estimates the backlog of cleanup costs for hard-rock mines across the country range from $20 billion to $54 billion.

Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; editing by Jonathan Oatis