Hardrock Mining:

BLM and Forest Service Have Taken Some Actions to Expedite the Mine Plan Review Process but Could Do More

GAO-16-165: Published: Jan 21, 2016. Publicly Released: Feb 22, 2016.

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What GAO Found

From fiscal years 2010 through 2014, the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service approved 68 mine plans of operation. The length of time it took the agencies to approve the mine plans ranged from about 1 month to over 11 years, and averaged approximately 2 years. Of the 68 approved mine plans, 13 had not begun operations as of November 2015. Agency officials attribute this to difficulties mine operators may face, such as obtaining other required federal and state permits.

A Hardrock Gold Mine on BLM-Managed Land in Nevada

A Hardrock Gold Mine on BLM-Managed Land in Nevada

BLM and Forest Service officials GAO interviewed said they experienced 13 key challenges that affected the length of time to review hardrock mine plans. The two most frequently cited were (1) the low quality of information operators provided in their mine plans and (2) the agencies' limited allocation of resources for their hardrock mining programs. To address the low quality of information in mine plans, some BLM and Forest Service officials held pre-mine plan submittal meetings with operators. However, officials do not always do so because BLM does not have specific guidance on how to implement these meetings, and Forest Service does not have any guidance instructing them to do so. Federal standards for internal control state that management should ensure there are adequate means of communicating with, and obtaining information from, external stakeholders that may have a significant impact on the agency achieving its goals. Without taking further actions to improve the quality of mine plan submissions, BLM and the Forest Service may be missing opportunities to help expedite the review process. To address the limited allocation of resources, BLM and Forest Service officials are leveraging existing resources by collaborating with other agencies, among other actions, but neither agency has fully used its authority to collect fees for conducting mine plan reviews as authorized by law. In addition, Forest Service is not authorized to retain these fees, as BLM is, but has not proposed the legislative changes that would allow it to retain fees, as is suggested by Office of Management and Budget guidance. BLM officials said the agency has not prioritized cost recovery for certain types of environmental analyses, and Forest Service officials were unaware of these authorities. By not using these authorities, BLM and Forest Service may be missing opportunities to expedite the mine plan review process.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Mining Law of 1872 encouraged development of the West by opening up federal land to exploration, extraction, and development of hardrock minerals such as gold, silver, and copper. Because mining creates the potential for serious health, safety, and environmental hazards, BLM and the Forest Service have processes for reviewing mine plans submitted by operators to help prevent and mitigate these hazards. A mine plan details the proposed mine's operations, such as the methods for mining and reclaiming the site once operations have concluded.

GAO was asked to assess the mine plan review process. This report examines (1) the number of mine plans BLM and the Forest Service approved from fiscal years 2010 through 2014, among other things, and (2) challenges that have affected the length of time for BLM and the Forest Service to complete the review process, as well as actions these agencies have taken to address these challenges. GAO obtained and analyzed mine plan review data from fiscal years 2010 through 2014, and interviewed agency officials in 23 offices, representing the 12 western states where hardrock mining occurs. The results are not generalizable to all locations conducting mine plan reviews.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that the agencies take actions to improve the quality of mine plan submissions and seek additional recovery of the costs associated with conducting mine plan reviews. The agencies generally concurred with these recommendations.

For more information, contact Anne-Marie Fennell, at (202) 512-3841 or fennella@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: According to a letter received from the agency in May 2016, the Department of Agriculture will provide training opportunities at all Forest Service levels in the proper administration and approval of mining plans and hold pre-planning meetings when possible. In addition, the Forest Service will promulgate regulations by October 1, 2017, to incorporate a pre-plan submittal meeting requirement in the revision of the Forest Service regulations at 36 CFR 228 Subpart A, Locatable Minerals.

    Recommendation: To ensure effective oversight, strengthen internal controls, and address challenges associated with the hardrock mine plan review process, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to take actions to improve the quality of mine plan submissions by, for example, developing guidance for mine operators and agency field officials that instructs them to hold pre-plan submittal meetings whenever possible.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: According to a letter received from the agency in May 2016, the Forest Service will review and evaluate all existing authorities that may allow the agency to promulgate a rule to collect and retain fees for hardrock mine plan processing activities. If authorities exist, the Forest Service will promulgate a rule by October 1, 2018. The letter also stated that the Forest Service has contacted the Office of General Counsel to aid in their review and will begin the process for requesting the authority from Congress for collecting and retaining hardrock mine plan processing fees.

    Recommendation: To ensure effective oversight, strengthen internal controls, and address challenges associated with the hardrock mine plan review process, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to issue a rule that establishes a fee structure for hardrock mine plan processing activities and request the authority from the Congress to retain any fees it collects.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: According to a letter received from the agency in April 2016, BLM agrees that pre-plan submittal meetings are worthwhile and may help prevent delays in the permitting process. The letter also stated that BLM will issue policy guidance for BLM employees regarding participation in pre-plan submittal meetings when possible and when desired by the operator. BLM will include general guidelines and will encourage each state office to create state-specific guidelines that will better meet the needs of the mining industry in each state. Target date for this policy is February 28, 2017.

    Recommendation: To ensure effective oversight, strengthen internal controls, and address challenges associated with the hardrock mine plan review process, Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of BLM to take actions to improve the quality of mine plan submissions by, for example, developing guidance for mine operators and agency field officials that instructs them to hold pre-plan submittal meetings whenever possible.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: According to a letter received from the agency in April 2016, BLM expressed concern about whether promulgating a rule to assess cost recovery fees for environmental assessment would result in faster permitting times and noted that such an undertaking may be challenging to complete given resource limitation as a result of other high priority rulemaking efforts currently underway by BLM. In the preamble of BLM's 2005 cost recovery rule, BLM indicated that it would consider issuing a separate rule to recover costs associated with reviewing mine plans that require an environmental assessment. BLM proposes to fulfill the intent of the preamble by conducting an internal analysis to determine whether requiring cost recovery would result in reduced permitting times. BLM will report its findings and address other options for increasing staff resources. The target date for completing these tasks is June 30, 2017.

    Recommendation: To ensure effective oversight, strengthen internal controls, and address challenges associated with the hardrock mine plan review process, Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of BLM to issue a rule that assesses fees associated with reviewing hardrock mine plans that involve conducting environmental assessments.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: According to a letter received from the agency in April 2016, BLM will develop new LR2000 codes to differentiate between different types of operations. The target date for completing of this activity is December 31, 2016.

    Recommendation: To ensure effective oversight, strengthen internal controls, and address challenges associated with the hardrock mine plan review process, Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of BLM to create new codes in its Legacy Rehost 2000 database distinguishing between different types of mine plans to help track the length of time to complete the mine plan review process.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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