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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture 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.
Closed - Implemented
As of April 2019, the Forest Service said it took actions to improve the quality of mine plan submissions. For example, the Forest Service had developed draft regulation revisions at 36 CFR 228 Subpart A, Locatable Minerals. These revisions include a pre-plan submittal meeting requirement and are scheduled to be released for public comment in the Fall of 2019 and final publication in the Fall of 2020. In addition, a Minerals Administration training course for field staff provided by the Geology and Minerals Training Office now includes discussion on mine plan completeness reviews and pre-submittal meetings. These meetings are to cover data needs, timelines, and compliance with other authorities. By taking these steps, we consider this recommendation to be closed.
Department of Agriculture 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.
Open
As of April 2021, the Forest Service said it is continuing to examine whether it has the statutory authority to issue a rule that establishes a fee structure, but asserts that it does not currently have the authority to collect and retain fees for hardrock mine plan processing activities. The Forest Service said it worked with the Department of Agriculture and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to submit a request through the President's Budget for authority from Congress to retain any fees collected from mine operations. Forest Service officials said the President's Budget for fiscal year 2021, developed by OMB, included such a request to Congress, but officials said Congress did not grant this authority in 2021. Forest Service officials also said the agency developed a draft rule that establishes a fee structure for hardrock mine operations if in the future Congress authorizes the agency to retain collected fees.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented
BLM issued a new Instructional Memorandum (2017-103) to encourage the use of pre-plan submittal meetings and require BLM employees to conduct these meetings when possible and when requested by the operator.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Not Implemented
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 rule making efforts currently underway by BLM. We contacted the Department of the Interior in December 2020, and it said that an internal analysis it conducted showed that the costs associated with collecting cost recovery fees for environmental assessments are not worthwhile because the fees would not offset the increased workload that would be required to process them. As a result, the agency will not issue a rule to assess such fees, and we consider this recommendation to be closed as unimplemented.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented
BLM created three new case-type codes in its Legacy Rehost 2000 database to address this recommendation. These new codes will allow BLM to distinguish between the different types of plans of operations by activity and gather more detailed information on the length of time it takes to complete the mine plan review process. In addition, BLM issued a new Permanent Instruction Memorandum No. 2018-013 in June 2018 to provide instruction to all BLM field offices on the mandatory use of these three new case-type codes. By taking these steps, we consider this recommendation to be closed.

Full Report