Hecla mining official testifies on permitting process at U.S. Senate hearing

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A Hecla Mining Company official on Tuesday testified in Washington, D.C. at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that discussed the federal permitting process for mining and other energy and resource infrastructure projects.

The hearing was chaired by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R—Alaska.

“We all recognize that we need to make investments to upgrade and modernize our aging infrastructure,” Murkowski said in a news release. “However, the current regulatory regime for these projects, from electric transmission lines to hydropower to mining projects, impacts the cost effectiveness of our federal investments. The length and uncertainty associated with the permitting process is driving private investment dollars overseas, rather than keeping those jobs here and creating growth and prosperity for our nation.”

Luke Russell, Hecla’s vice president of external affairs, spoke of his company’s efforts to develop the Rock Creek and Montanore mines near Libby.

Currently, those proposed mines are making their way through a permitting process that Russell characterized as inefficient and frequently delayed further by litigation.

“The U.S. has one of the longest permitting processes in the world for mining projects,” he wrote in a version of his testimony made available before the hearing. “In the U.S., necessary government authorizations now take approximately seven to 10 years to secure, or even longer ... By comparison, permitting in Australia and Canada, which have similar environmental standards and practices as the U.S., take between two and three years.”

“In my experience,” Russell continued, “permitting delays are frequently caused by ineffective project management, unnecessary bureaucratic red tape, inefficient workforce issues with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, and multiple appeals and litigation.”

Russell also cited the existence of “unnecessary delays and duplication” in the permitting process, and the challenge of facing litigation from conservation groups questioning various decisions made by agencies in the permitting process and Hecla’s intentions or ability to ensure environmental requirements are met.

“To be clear, valid concerns about environmental protection need to be fully considered and addressed,” he testified. “At the same time, we should not trap mining projects in a limbo of duplicative, unpredictable and endless review without a decision point. We should not confuse the length of the process with the rigor of review.”

Russell said any revamp of the permitting process should aim to minimize delays, set and follow timelines “and schedules for completion of the permitting process,” and to track progress and provide for accountability.

In addition to Russell, officials from Department of the Interior and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission also testified.

“The panel expressed the pretty consistent theme of the need to improve our federal permitting system to increase predictability in the process while maintaining our high environmental standards,” Russell said Wednesday via email. “It is false choice to say permitting more efficiently is somehow a trade off for environmental protections — both Canada and Australia do permitting more efficiently and have tough environmental standards.”

Russell wrote that he was unsure of the next steps “but there did seem a sense from the committee that we’ve been talking about need to improve the permitting process for many years and now is time to make that happen.”

“The excessive and bureaucratic permitting process of the Montanore and Rock Creek projects is outrageous,” Sen. Steve Daines said via email Thursday. “I am hopeful the Administration will publish its findings on the Rock Creek project in 2018 and the Montanore project as quickly as possible.”

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