Mining laws do not adequately protect communities and their water
Published: August 30, 2007
Pollution and Taxpayer Liability at Modern Mines Demonstrate that the Existing Patchwork of Laws does not Adequately Protect Communities and their Water
The hardrock mining industry argues that pollution from mines result almost entirely from historic operations. Modern mines, the industry argues, are governed by numerous statutes and regulations and are environmentally responsible, problem-free operations.1 Unfortunately, the assertion that that all modern mines are clean, is simply not true. Consider:
A 2006 peer-reviewed study of modern mines revealed that more than 75% of the mines reviewed exceeded water quality standards.2
At least 16 modern mines have gone bankrupt.3
Unfunded taxpayer liability at currently operating mines probably exceeds $12 billion.4
It is true that historic mining polluted and continues to pollute rivers, streams and aquifers. Until 1976, there were no federal regulations written specifically to govern hardrock mining operations on publicly owned land. But, it is also clear from the issues at modern mines that the patchwork of laws that govern hardrock mining operations are not enough to ensure that western watersheds and communities are protected.
Mines that began operations in the past three decades three decades in which the mining industry was governed by modern environmental laws have spilled cyanide, killed aquatic life, caused pollution that will require treatment in perpetuity and burdened the taxpayers with enormous liabilities.
Many Modern Mines Exceed Current Water Quality Standards
In order to be permitted, a proposed mine must predict that it will comply with applicable environmental standards. At the time they are permitted, all modern mining operations predict that they will comply with applicable standards during and after mining operations. However, in 2006 an unprecedented, scientific, peer-reviewed survey discovered that more than 75% of the major mines surveyed exceeded water quality standards.5 Of the mines surveyed, 84% were modern mines that began operating after the advent of modern environmental laws.6
Potential Taxpayer Cleanup Liability Exceeds $12 Billion at Modern Mines
According to a 2003 report, current laws leave taxpayers potentially liable for more than $12 billion in mine cleanup costs at currently operating mines.7 Modern mines are required to post financial assurances to prevent just such taxpayer liability. However, this financial exposure still exists in part because existing mining laws largely do not specify how (or how much) a mine should be cleaned up.
Modern Mining Bankruptcies
The underbonding of current operations is a serious problem, because modern mines regularly go bankrupt. In the past twenty years, at least 16 modern mines have gone bankrupt. 8
|Mine Location||Owner||Location||Year Operations Began||Year Bankruptcy Declared|
|Illinois Creek Mine||USMX/Dakota Mining||Alaska||1997||1999|
|Black Pine Mine||Pegasus Gold||Idaho||1992||1998|
|Beal Mountain Mine||Pegasus Gold||Montana||1988||1998|
|Zortman-Landusky Mine||Pegasus Gold||Montana||1979||1998|
|Basin Creek Mine||Pegasus Gold||Montana||1988||1998|
|Paradise Peak Mine||Arimetco International||Nevada||1989||1997|
|Aurora Partnership Mine||Nevada Goldfields||Nevada||1987||1999|
|Gold Bar Mine||Atlas Gold Mining||Nevada||1989||1999|
|Mount Hamilton Mine||Rea Gold Corporation||Nevada||1994||1998|
|Easy Junior Mine||Alta Gold||Nevada||1994||1999|
|Kinsley Mountain Mine||Alta Gold||Nevada||1995||1999|
|Griffon Mine||Alta Gold||Nevada||1997||1999|
|Olinghouse Mine||Alta Gold||Nevada||1999||1999|
|Formosa Mine||Formosa Exploration||Oregon||1990||1997|
|Gilt Edge Mine||Dakota Mining||South Dakota||1986||1999|
Modern Mining Gone Awry 5 Case Studies:
Idaho: Grouse Creek Mine
The Grouse Creek mine, located adjacent to the largest wilderness complex in the lower 48 states, was heralded as a "state-of-the-art" mine when it began operations in 1994. Just three years later, the mine shut its doors -- producing no profits and leaving behind a legacy of long-term water pollution. The Grouse Creek mine was permitted as a "zero discharge facility."9 Yet, soon after mining began, the tailings impoundment began to leak cyanide . As a result of on-going violations, the Forest Service posted
signs which warned, "Caution, do not drink this water."10 In 2003, the Forest Service declared the mine site an "imminent and substantial endangerment."11 Cleanup activities are on-going.
Oregon: Formosa Mine
In 1991, during a period of high metal prices, Canadian start-up Formosa Exploration Inc. launched a copper zinc mine on 76 acres of federal (BLM) and private land near the town of Riddle in southwest Oregon. The mine folded 2 1/2 years later in 1994 as prices slumped. According to the State of Oregon, the mine has contaminated 18 miles of the Oregon's Umpqua watershed (Middle Creek and South Fork of Middle Creek and Cow Creek) - eliminating prime habitat for the threatened Oregon coast Coho salmon
and steelhead.12 So severe is the pollution that even insect life is gone in the upper reaches of the creeks, along with any chance of supporting fisheries.
Montana: Beal Mountain Mine
The Beal Mountain Mine, located on the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest, operated from 1989-1998. !When the mine was permitted, the Environmental Analysis concluded that the operation of the mine would have no impacts to water quality, because there will be no discharge of mine or process
water to surface waters. 13 The agencies were wrong. Although the mine ceased operating years ago, it has continued to pollute neighboring streams with cyanide, selenium and copper at levels that harm aquatic life.14 !Scientists have also determined that trout in water downstream of the mine are contaminated with harmful amounts of selenium caused by mining activities.15 Warren McCullough, who is responsible for enforcing state mine permit laws for Montana DEQ, told the Montana Standard in July 2003 that the aftermath of the closed Beal Mountain Mine is "not going to be something that we're ever going to be able to walk away from." !The State has determined that contaminated runoff from the mine will have to be treated in perpetuity.
Montana: Kendall Mine
The Kendall Mine, an open pit, cyanide- leach mine located northwest of Lewistown, Montana, was permitted in 1989. The mine caused extensive water quality and quantity problems including numerous cyanide spills.16 In addition, precipitation flowing through the waste rock piles caused extensive contamination of groundwater and surface water. In 1998, the State of Montana ordered Canyon Resources, the owner of the mine, to pay $300,000 for polluting downstream waters with cyanide, selenium, arsenic and thallium.17 Canyon Resources claimed it did not have the financial resources to pay the fine. In 2002, Canyon finally paid the State a reduced penalty of $132,000 with only $13,000 in cash and the balance in mineral rights transferred from the company to the state. In October, 2001, six families who live downstream of the mine filed suit against the company for damages to their water supplies and private property. State officials have determined that long-term water treatment will be required at the mine.18
Nevada: Jerritt Canyon
Queenstake's Jerritt Canyon Mine in northern Nevada, which was permitted in 1980, has been releasing massive unreported amounts of mercury into the air. Emissions data, obtained from the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP) and made public in June of 2007, indicates that the mine may have released as much as 6,000-8,000 pounds of mercury air pollution in 2005 and 2006, yet it reported only 300-400 pounds to state and federal agencies for those years.19 Gold mines are the fifth
largest source of mercury air emissions in the U.S, producing 25% of all the mercury air emissions west of Texas.20 Yet there are no federal regulations requiring gold mines to control their mercury emissions. Mercury is considered the most dangerous heavy metal because it is toxic to humans and moves freely through the environment.
Modern Mining Need a Modern Mining Law
Unlike other extractive industries, there is no environmental law written specifically to govern hardrock mining. Instead, a patchwork of federal and state laws and regulations attempts to fill in the holes. As modern mining problems have demonstrated, the current legal and regulatory system fails to protect western water resources. Reform of the 1872 Mining Law should include clear operational standards for hardrock mining, to prevent future spills and contamination. These standards should include:
" Bad Actor provisions to ensure that companies that have caused serious environmental harm in the past to not receive a permit for a new mining operation;
" The ability to deny mining operations that would cause undue degradation to human health, water resources, wildlife habitat, and other natural resources;
" A provision that ensures that mining operations will not continue to pollute after mining has ceased;
" The requirement that mining activities minimize negative effects on water quality and
quantity. Reform of the 1872 Mining Law should also include explicit reclamation standards, with bond requirements tied to those standards. Reclamation standards should include:
" A requirement to restore the hydrologic balance of a the area after mining has ceased;
" Restoration of the surface and revegetation;
" A requirement that, for pits that do not require backfilling, water in pit lakes comply with Federal, State and local government water quality standards;
" Tailings impoundments designed to minimize leaks and prevent the release of toxic materials, and waste rock piles that are stabilized.
9 Record of Decision and Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement - Volume 1, Grouse Creek Project, USDA Forest Service
Challis National Forest, May 1992
10 Associated Press, "Mine processing waste still entering Jordan Creek," September 8, 1999; see also, "Idaho Fines Open-Pit Gold Mine
$210,000 for Polluting Local Creek," Salt Lake Tribune, October 2, 1999
11 Forest Service and Environmental Protection Agency, "Removal Action Memorandum," May 21, 2003
12 State of Oregon, Department of Environmental Quality, Fact Sheet: Oregon s Abandoned Mine Cleanups Complicated by High Cost and
Lack of Funding. March 13, 2006.
13 Beal Mountain Reclamation Under Fire, Montana Standard, July 14, 2002
14 Action Memorandum for Beal Mountain Mine Time Critical Removal. Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Silver Bow County,
Montana, July 2003.
15 Aquatic Hazard Assessment for Selenium in the German Gulch subwatershed, Based on 2001 and 2002 Data. Prepared January 2003 by
Tim LaMarr, Reviewed by Dennis Lemly.
17 The Associated Press, October 29, 1998, State: Another $ 4 million may be needed to clean up Kendall mine
19 The Idaho Statesman, June 10, 2007, Toxic Mercury Blows North Into Idaho