RENO - The Clinton administration is trying to strike a compromise with Sen. Harry Reid over a mining amendment critics say could stick taxpayers with up to a $1 billion bill for cleaning up toxic mine waste.
Environmentalists say the Nevada Democrat's rider to an Interior Department spending bill would block federal agencies from adopting stricter regulations on bonding requirements for hard-rock mining companies.
They also say it would prevent the Bureau of Land Management and others from assuming new authority to prohibit mining activity on federal lands.
Reid, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, is known as an influential defender of the mining industry in Nevada, the third largest gold producer in the world behind South Africa and Australia.
''This rider is just another special favor for the hard-rock mining industry,'' said Alan Septoff, campaign director for the Mineral Policy Center, a non-profit environmental group based in Washington D.C.
Reid's proposal is among several lawmakers are attempting to attach to the bill which have drawn criticism from the administration as potentially harmful to the environment.
''We are not happy with it. We are trying to work it out,'' said Tim Ahern, a spokesman for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who oversees the BLM.
''It's not clear yet what we'll do. This is sort of our annual fight over riders,'' Ahern said late Friday from Washington D.C.
''We're always happy to talk with Senator Reid. He's been an ally on a lot of things and we'll work with him,'' he said.
Reid was refusing comment on the proposal until it is formally adopted by the conference committee working out differences between House and Senate versions of the annual appropriation bill, Reid spokesman Mark Schuermann said.
While the panel accepted Reid's amendment Thursday night, it is not formally adopted until the committee members approve the overall bill and send it as a package to the House and Senate for final floor votes.
That's expected to happen in the coming week.
Russ Fields, president of the Nevada Mining Association, said he knew Reid was working on an amendment to the spending bill but that he hadn't seen the language and had no immediate comment.
Bob Abbey, Nevada state director for the Bureau of Land Management, has not discussed the matter with Reid and had no comment, BLM spokeswoman Jo Simpson said in Reno.
Chris Cervini, spokesman for the Mineral Policy Center, said Reid's language would allow only those regulation changes endorsed in a recent report by the National Research Council.
''The report doesn't include such things as adequate reclamation bonding and discretion on the part of the federal land agencies to deny mines where they don't belong,'' Cervini said.
That makes it more likely federal taxpayers will have to foot the bill for mines that go out of business with no money left to cover the cleanup of waste materials, he said.
Stephen D'Esposito, president of the Mineral Policy Center, said the group estimated in a recent study with Taxpayers for Common Sense that taxpayers are potentially liable for between $250 million and $1 billion in cleanup costs at mines today.
''This rider is essentially a toxic tax,'' D'Esposito said.
''Senator Reid has just passed a billion-dollar mine-pollution cleanup bill from mining companies on the American taxpayers.''