Daschle battles environmentalists over spent South Dakota mine

Published March 1, 2002

The battle over Missouri River water is not the only environmental issue in which Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is battling fellow Democrats. Daschle has angered environmental interest groups over his support for a plan for the federal government to assume all environmental liability for a gold mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

For the past 125 years, the Homestake Mining company has operated a gold mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills are among the most venerated places in the religion of Native Americans living on the Great Plains.

After extracting 2.5 million pounds of gold from the Hills, Homestake Mining has finally exhausted its mine and is planning to close it down. Under existing Superfund law, Homestake Mining would be financially responsible for the costs of closing the mine and any future environmental clean-ups necessitated by the mine.

Daschle sides against environment

However, Peter Robertson, a partner in the Patton Boggs law firm and chief of staff of former President Clinton’s Environmental Protection Agency, lobbied on behalf of Homestake Mining for a plan absolving it of major closing costs and environmental liability.

According to the plan, the federal government would assume all costs related to the closing of the mine, assume all future liability for mine-related environmental issues, and spend nearly $300 million to convert the mine into a government science laboratory. Overall, industry observers expect the cost of the legislation could reach $1 billion over the next decade alone.

Congressional Democrats have generally opposed any legislation that limits damages companies must pay for environmental damage. Daschle, moreover, has made headlines for his combative stand against pro-growth programs, a position he shares with anti-market environmental interest groups.

Nevertheless, Daschle is the chief sponsor of the legislation that would let the South Dakota mining company off the hook after extracting more than 2 million pounds of gold from the sacred Black Hills. The measure was tacked onto the 2002 appropriations bill for the Defense Department, of all agencies.

Daschle argued the legislation would create an economic boon to the small town of Lead, South Dakota, and would further the advance of science. Environmental activists and Republican congressmen were not so sure.

Costly “sweetheart deal”

“This legislation is a huge gift to Homestake,” said Jay Tutchton, a lawyer for EarthJustice. “It makes some sense as a local economic stimulus. But there are probably cheaper ways to stimulate the economy.”

Regarding environmental liability alone, “Homestake is getting off the hook for $30 million to $40 million of potential liability,” said Tutchton, “based on the experience of adjacent mines that were closed and became Superfund sites.”

Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-New York), questioned why Daschle would remove liability for a South Dakota gold mine after so vehemently opposing business and economic interests on virtually all other environmental matters, including the nation’s energy needs and the location of army bases.

“This bill,” said Boehlert, “could saddle taxpayers with costly and unprecedented environmental responsibilities. The federal government will be financially responsible for activities it did not undertake at a piece of property it does not control.”

The legislation, Boehlert added, is “a sweetheart deal for the Canadian company that owns Homestake and for the state of South Dakota.”

Representative Dick Armey (R-Texas) found it odd that Daschle opposed limits on lawsuits brought by the victims of future terrorist acts, but supported limits on lawsuits brought against South Dakota mining interests.

“You have Senator Daschle feigning moral outrage over limitations on liability in antiterrorism insurance,” said Armey, “yet he comes right back on behalf of a special interest in his home state and says, ‘I want liability limitations.'”

Proponents of the legislation argue scientific interests justify the costly federal program. Once again, not all parties agreed.

Curt Suplee, a spokesperson for the National Science Foundation, expressed concern the Foundation might have to contribute to the costs of cleaning up prior environmental damage at the mine. Moreover, said Suplee, many other projects have been reviewed and approved by the Foundation but have been waiting for years to receive their funds. Scientists on these other projects will be puzzled, he said, to find their programs are once again put on the back burner while Daschle’s friends “jump ahead” of them.