The Senate voted yesterday to overturn federal rules limiting mine waste dumps on federal lands to five acres, although several other Republican proposals to roll back environmental restrictions were sidelined because of a Senate rules change a day earlier.
The Senate rejected, 55 to 41, a Democrat-led effort to eliminate language in a proposed $14 billion appropriations bill for the Interior Department that would wipe out the five-acre limit. The vote reversed department policy and legal rulings. Proponents of the provision argued that it was necessary to protect the U.S. mining industry and the jobs it creates, while foes contended it would lead to a proliferation of toxic waste dumps on public lands and Indian reservations.
To confine mining operations to five-acre dumps would "kill the American mining industry" and send its jobs abroad, Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) said. To lift the limit "gives the mining industry everything they want and the American people more dumps," countered Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who led the effort to retain the five-acre restriction.
The vote came shortly after four other contentious environmental provisions were stricken from the bill as a result of action by the Senate's Republican majority Monday to reinstate a rule barring legislating on appropriations bills.
Among the stricken provisions were ones to block the administration from raising royalties on oil extracted from federal lands, to halt implementation of an executive order to reduce governmental use of electric and coal-produced energy and to give governors of Idaho and Montana veto power over introduction of grizzly bears into their states.
But sponsors of some of these provisions were working yesterday to restructure the proposals so they might be acceptable under the restored rule. Votes on these and other Republican proposals, which have drawn ire from environmentalists and veto threats from the White House, are expected to continue next week.
In related action, the House approved a proposal requiring the Army Corps of Engineers to complete a study before overhauling its permit process for wetlands development and setting aside $5 million to create a new appeals process for developers.
By a vote of 183 to 245, the House rejected an effort to eliminate the proposal from a $20.5 billion spending bill for energy and water projects for next year. The bill was later approved by the House.
Critics argued that the provision -- included in the bill by Appropriations energy and water subcommittee Chairman Ron Packard (R-Calif.) at the behest of industry groups -- would delay the administration's efforts to strengthen wetlands protections. The administration has threatened to veto the bill, in part because of the wetlands language.
"This is not something that is minor or insignificant," said Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (Ind.), the subcommittee's ranking Democrat.
But Republicans responded they were simply trying to force the Corps of Engineers to implement policies the administration itself had already proposed and to evaluate how much of a burden the new rules would place on the agency. They modified the provision to require that the study be issued by the end of the year, with the new rules taking effect no sooner than a month afterward.