Canceling the New World Mine


A United Nations committee has now designated Yellowstone National Park as a "world heritage site in danger" largely because a Canadian conglomerate wants to build a huge gold, silver and copper mine less than three miles from the park's borders. The designation carries no legal weight, but it adds an international voice to the virtually unanimous chorus of opposition to the mine, which includes President Clinton. Nobody seems to want this mine except Noranda, the Canadian company, and its American subsidiary, Crown Butte, which has title to the mine site and has so far invested about $35 million in this project.

After listening patiently to the company's safety pitch, this page is convinced that the proposed New World Mine is a disaster-in-waiting that could ruin one of America's leading ecosystems. Reputable geologists say the company's proposed reservoir for storing buried liquid wastes in perpetuity is bound to crack someday, given the region's weather patterns and history of earthquakes. That would send tons of toxic material directly into the irreplaceable Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River. Meanwhile, the mining operations would stir up underground wastes that would then seep into Yellowstone National Park itself.

Government officials from Mr. Clinton on down would like to take unilateral action to stop the mine, but Noranda has legal title to the land. Therefore, as Mr. Clinton noted when he visited Yellowstone in August, he will wait for the E.I.S., or "environmental impact statement," to run its course. The E.I.S. involves detailed scientific studies and laborious negotiations between government agencies, interested private parties and the company.

President Clinton will have to monitor this process to make sure Government bureaucrats do not bow to arguments that the mine can be made safe on a permanent basis. The claim defies science and common sense. Unfortunately, the lead Federal agency in the E.I.S. process is not Secretary Bruce Babbitt's Interior Department, but the Agriculture Department's Forest Service, which controls most of the land near the mine. The service has an unfortunate history of favoring commercial values over environmental values, and its key negotiators are sounding the same tune now. Mr. Clinton should not be timid about muscling these negotiators to give full weight to the views of other Federal agencies, including the National Park Service, which think the mine is a terrible idea.