William Perry Pendley, serving an illegally long tenure as BLM “Deputy Director acting in the capacity of Director”

by Debbie Coffey

Brian Maffley wrote a Salt Lake Tribune article about William Perry Pendley, the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) “Deputy Director acting in the capacity of Director,” and stated “…Pendley said his marching orders are centered on fighting and preventing fires, reducing the numbers of wild horses and burros, and accommodating more recreation.”

William Perry Pendley, along with the Secretary of the Interior (David Bernhardt) and the White House, continues to divert attention away from the very serious environmental and human health problems caused by well over 100,000 abandoned mines on public lands, and instead, put a focus on removing America’s wild horses and burros from public lands..

Carol Walker and I were guests on Whistleblowers radio show and talked about the abandoned mines in our nation, and noted that the BLM rarely informs the public about this issue, but blames wild horses for being the “biggest problem” in the West.

For one thing, wild horses are only on about 4% of public lands in the West.

The BLM has estimated that there are about 500,000 abandoned mines in our nation.

However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has stated that in just the 13 Western states, the inventory puts abandoned mine estimates at 620,000.  This estimate includes public, private and state lands.  There are dangerous levels of environmental contaminants, such as arsenic, lead and mercury at some sites.

One interesting thing is that not all government agencies keep track of the number of abandoned mine SITES, they only keep track of abandoned mine FEATURES, like mine tailings or waste rock.

In March 2020, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on Abandoned Mines, and stated that on PUBLIC LANDS, the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), found 140,000 abandoned mine features, and estimated that there could be more than 390,000 abandoned mine features on public lands that have not yet been captured on agency databases.

And the American public doesn’t even know the true extent of abandoned mines on public lands.  A 2008 Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General report found that employees were criticized or received threats of retaliation for site identification. An employee who told DOI officials that there were thousands of dangerous abandoned mines within the employee’s jurisdiction was subsequently criticized for making such a statement.

Several employees told OIG that management made threats against their careers for raising these issues.

The most concerning situation created by abandoned mines is their threat to water resources.  Acid mine drainage is highly acidic wastewater that is toxic to fish and other aquatic species and can pose major threats to human health. The EPA estimates that 40 percent of the West’s headwater watersheds have been polluted by mining.  Much of that pollution is due to abandoned mines.

In 2015, a spill at the Gold King mine near Durango, Colorado sent more than 3 million gallons of toxic water into the Animas River. The spill went from Colorado into New Mexico, and on to Lake Powell in Utah.

So, you have to ask yourself, how could 1 wild horse possibly be as destructive as an abandoned mine?

The BLM constantly complains about the cost of their Wild Horse & Burro Program.  The wild horses and burros graze for free on public lands, but the BLM colludes with the livestock grazing industry to round up wild horses & burros.

The BLM’s FY 2021 budget seeks $116.8 million for the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program – a $15.3 million increase over the FY 2020 enacted level.  (Most of this goes towards roundups and warehousing wild horses & burros on private property.)

Comparatively, the GAO’s recent report states that the BLM, the National Park Service, the EPA and the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation COMBINED only spend $287 million annually to address environmental and safety hazards of abandoned mines.

The BLM spends $159 million a year of that amount.  So, the BLM spends almost as much on its mismanaged Wild Horse & Burro Program as it does on clean up abandoned mines that are threats to the environment and public safety.

The U.S. is still operating under the General Mining Act of 1872.   This is a law that allows mining companies to:

  • Mine taxpayer owned minerals without paying any royalties, unlike other extractive industries. Whoever stakes a claim and discovers valuable minerals on public lands claims those riches — more than $300 billion and counting since 1872 — without giving taxpayers a dime for them.
  • Buy those mineral bearing public lands for no more than $5 per acre — 1872 prices.

Why aren’t the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management pushing hard to modernize this 1872 mining law and to fix lax agency regulations and loopholes?  Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) records indicate that the BLM has talked about changing the Wild Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act of 1971, in an attempt to lessen the protections for wild horses.

America’s wild horses & burros on public lands are not the problem.  Abandoned mines are a huge problem.

In May of 2020, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Western Watersheds Project sued to remove Pendley for overstaying interim director term limits, and Montana Governor Steve Bullock followed suit with a lawsuit of his own.

Only the president can make temporary appointments for “acting” agency directors and those appointments can last just 210 days.

Only a Senate-confirmed Director or a Presidentially-appointed Acting Director would have legal legitimacy to lead the Bureau.  William Perry Pendley is neither of those.