Mine operators find Uncle Sam now a friend

For years, hard-rock miners were contemptuously called ''diggers'' by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) bureaucrats. To hear mining industry representatives talk, since World War II the nation's miners have lived through a series of harrowing, economic events comparable to the Perils of Pauline, tied to the tracks with reams of government red tape. They say their industry is currently in the middle of a major depression.

And, of course, they have played the role of the heavy since the environmental movement came of age. Environmentalists have categorized the mining industry as the prototype despoiler of Mother Earth, branded it as the ultimate enemy, and opposed its activities in no-holds-barred legal battles.

Given these facts, the attitude of the US mining industry is surprisingly upbeat. ''There is a remarkable optimism,'' agrees Charles Barber, chairman of the American Mining Congress (AMC) and head of ASARCO Inc., a large multinational mining company.

The root of this confidence is simple: the Reagan administration. President Reagan's appointment of James Watt as Secretary of the Interior was greeted with wholehearted enthusiasm by the mining industry. And miner-cattleman Robert Burford was equally welcomed when he took the job of director of the BLM. The administration's oft-repeated commitment to reducing red tape and federal regulations is music to the ears of mining industry officials. They are convinced that this White House, unlike its predecessors, understands the importance of the industry.

To its practitioners, the heady, high-risk, and potentially high-profit game of prospecting for mineral riches is essential. Throughout their literature, mining companies stress that minerals are basic to civilization, that they are essential to food, shelter, energy, industry, and defense.

Indeed, this is an incontrovertible fact. Without iron, aluminum, lead, phosphate, and the dozens of other minerals which we mine, industrial society as we know it could not exist. Of course, there is more controversy over questions such as whether our use of these raw materials has been overly wasteful and whether the mining industry has been cavalier in its attitude toward public and worker safety as well as environmental degradation.

Still, the belief that their activities are essential to society is one which many mining industry members hold deeply, perhaps more deeply than those in many other industries. An indication of this depth of feeling came several weeks ago when a small group of environmentalists infiltrated the AMC meeting where Secretary Watt was to speak. When they began heckling Mr. Watt, a couple of AMC delegates took it upon themselves to bodily evict several of the disrupters.

''Mining people . . . tend to be thoughtful, well-read, and highly opinionated,'' explains one of their Capitol Hill champions, Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming. He did not have to add that their opinions tend to be quite conservative.

The new administration appears to share the mining industry's basic beliefs. ''My advocacy on behalf of mining arises from my belief in the importance of mining to a modern, civilized society . . .,'' Secretary Watt told receptive members of the mining congress.

This is particularly true in the area of strategic minerals, about three-dozen in number, mainly metals, which are essential to the economy and in the production of military hardware. ''Of 36 strategic minerals . . . the US is dependent on unstable or hostile nations for 22,'' says Watt.

The ''unstable'' nation of most concern is South Africa. The ''hostile'' nation is the Soviet Union. Together with the United States, they are the biggest mineral producers in the world and have a number of minerals the US lacks. Many mining company executives believe the Soviet Union is waging an undeclared war against US mining. They point to Soviet-block ''adventurism'' in mineral-rich areas of Africa like Angola, Zaire, and Zambia. They also claim that since 1979 the pattern of Soviet-block exports has been unusual and has some aspects of a resource war, despite US State Department conclusions to the contrary.

''For many of these essential materials our dependence is greater on a percentage basis than it is for petroleum,'' says Simon Strauss, an international authority on mining. ''Also, the production of a number of these minerals is dominated by two or three countries, as compared with the dozen or more nations in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC),'' he adds.

Mr. Strauss and his colleagues use this issue as justification for advocating federal actions to strengthen the country's domestic mining industry, including relaxation of environmental standards and allowing it to continue to explore for minerals in wilderness areas after the current 1984 deadline. Environmentalists argue that stockpiling these critical minerals, increased recycling, and research into methods to find substitutes for these materials would be more effective. Using this as an excuse to gain access to set-aside federal lands is, in the words of the Friends of the Earth, ''economic and environmental mischief in the name of national security.''

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