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Earlier this month a Washington, D.C., think tank ripped on Utah for failing to protect the environment from the ravages of mining.

State officials are returning fire.Dianne Nielson, the director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, sent a pointed three-page letter to the Mineral Policy Center, complaining about the "inaccurate rhetoric" in the center's report, titled "States' Rights, Miners' Wrongs."

"I am frankly surprised and disappointed by the poor quality of your report," Nielsen says. "The numerous errors, inaccuracies, incomplete presentations of facts and misrepresentations belie any credibility you might otherwise have brought to the issue."

In its report, the Mineral Policy Center said Western states - including Utah - are ill-equipped to regulate mining.

It criticized Utah specifically for problems at the Bingham Canyon mine in Salt Lake County and the Mercur Mine in Tooele County.

The report criticizes the DEQ's Division of Water Quality for failing to take strong enforcement action against Barrick Resources, owner of the Mercur Mine, which was the site of a huge spill of cyanide-contaminated water two years ago.

"Despite the gravity of the offense and reports of two previous spills . . . the state settled for a fine of $12,000," the report states.

Nielsen says the report misses the point.

"The violations . . . were discovered or reported because of the level of oversight provided by the division," she says. Further, "the likelihood that water quality problems will be prevented has been enhanced by (division) regulatory involvement at the site."

And the size of the fine was appropriate, given that there was no environmental damage to groundwater or surface water, Nielsen says.

The report also criticizes the state for attempting to settle with Kennecott over a plume of contaminated groundwater that threatens drinking water sources.

Nielsen said the report not only exaggerated the size of the plume, it inaccurately stated that the settlement would have released Kennecott from liability for cleaning up the groundwater.

The settlement, which is being disputed in the courts, would not have released Kennecott from cleanup liability under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program, Nielsen said.

The Mineral Policy Center, which was co-founded by former Interior Secretary Stuart Udall, is pushing for reform of the 1872 Mining Law. Because the states have been lax in regulating mining activities, the center advocates that the federal government be responsible for enforcing the new mining reforms unless the states prove their standards are equal to or more stringent than federal standards.

"The states' rights have led directly to miners' wrongs," the report states.

But Nielsen counters that mining regulatory programs in Utah and other federal-land-dominated states have evolved with significant changes.

"It simply does not make sense to understate and, hence duplicate, the substantial state programs now in place," she says.