Wednesday, April 21, 1999 | 4:52 a.m.
RENO, Nev. -- The Clinton administration is continuing its move toward stricter mining regulations and will close a comment period next month despite objections from the industry and Nevada, a state official said Wednesday.
But Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was continuing a fight in Congress and was confident the Bureau of Land Management ultimately would back down and extend the May 10 deadline for public comment on the controversial package of proposed regulations.
"It will be extended," Reid insisted late Wednesday. "BLM doesn't have a vote here in Congress."
The BLM's proposed update of the so-called "3809" is aimed at better protecting the environment and water quality surrounding hard-rock mining operations for metals like gold and copper.
Industry critics say additional regulatory burdens will drive small operators out of business and send larger ones packing overseas.
Among other things, the proposed regulations would make it more difficult to obtain permits for open pit mining and require even small operations to post bonds guaranteeing they are able to pay for reclamation.
They also would establish new administrative enforcement tools and civil penalties and could place some areas off limits if federal officials determine they are unsuitable for mining.
Reid, the minority whip, and other Western lawmakers have gone to bat for the industry, urging Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to keep the comment period open until after the National Academy of Sciences completes an exhaustive review of existing laws due out in July.
But a Nevada state regulator testifying before a National Research Council panel in Reno Wednesday said he had been informed by BLM that public comment would end as scheduled next month.
"It's really disappointing," said Leo Drozdoff, chief of the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Mining Regulation and Reclamation.
"We really hope this committee will do what we don't think the BLM has done to date - complete a thorough review of existing regulations," he told the panel.
Tom Leshendok, the BLM's assistant director for minerals in Nevada, said he had received no formal notification of a decision regarding the public comment deadline.
But "informally, we understand that is the case. We are proceeding as if that is the case," he told The Associated Press.
Interior Department spokesman John Wright said from headquarters in Washington late Wednesday public comment already was extended once before and there was no indication it would be extended again.
Babbitt already has assured the industry that the National Academy of Sciences report - being drafted by the National Research Council committee - would be included in the final drafting of the regulations, Wright said.
Reid and other critics earlier had tried to prevent the BLM from coming forward with even the proposed regulations until after the committee report was completed.
"They really didn't want us to go forward at all. Our position all along has been let's operate on both tracks. We'll roll it all together at the end," Wright said.
Reid inserted language in an appropriation bill already approved by the Senate that requires the BLM to keep the comment period open for 120 days after the National Academy of Sciences issues its report in July.
That bill hasn't passed the House yet, "but there are other vehicles," Reid said.
"What are they afraid of? It's not as if we asked the corner drugstore to do the report. We asked the National Academy of Sciences to do a study to determine if the regs are necessary," he said.
Nevada is the largest gold producer in the nation, ranking third internationally behind South Africa and Australia.
Industry leaders and state regulators say Nevada mining laws, last updated in 1989, already are strong enough to guard against environmental degradation.
Environmentalists say the state is too cozy with the mining industry and that stronger federal oversight is needed. Officials for the Forest Service and BLM told the committee Wednesday they sometimes lack enforcement tools necessary to stop violations.
Perry Hagenstein, chairman of the National Research Council committee on hardrock mining on federal lands, said he accepted Babbitt's assurances "that they will pay attention to our recommendations."
But Drozdoff said that was no consolation. He said the NRC panel was involved in a "tremendous undertaking" in gathering data about existing federal and state mining laws across the country.
He said BLM could have developed more credibility in its own regulations if had waited for completion of that scientific review.
"If an independent third-party does it, there would be a lot greater buy-in."