America’s hardrock mining legacy unfortunately includes approximately 500,000 abandoned mines - mostly in the western United States.
Threats to Water
Some of these sites now pose serious threats to the health and safety of communities downstream.
This threat was made real most recently on August 5, 2015, when 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.
It is in large part because of these abandoned and inactive mines that the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that mining has polluted at least 40 percent of stream reaches in the headwaters of western watersheds, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Much of this pollution is due to abandoned mines.
Threats to the Taxpayer
These abandoned and inactive mines are a threat to the taxpayer because cleaning them up, before they turn to disasters like the Gold King Spill, may cost more than $50 billion.
And because, like the the coal mining industry, the metal mining industry pays no fee to clean up its legacy of abandoned mines, the American taxpayer is on the hook for that cost.
As a result, these mines are left to fester until minor problems become major problems. Colorado officials have made repeated statements to the media that the state of Colorado does not have enough funding to address leaks at abandoned mines. And they are not alone.
The root of the problem is the 1872 Mining Law, an archaic federal law that still governs hardrock mining on our public lands today.
It allows mining corporations, foreign or domestic, to remove billions in gold, silver, copper, and other metals, from our public lands with no royalty payment to the public. All of the other resource extraction industries, including the coal, oil and gas industries, pay a federal royalty that contributes towards cleanup.
Furthermore, the Bureau of Land Management/U.S. Forest Service/Environmental Protection Agency rules that pertain to hardrock mining are lax and riddled with exemptions. They need to be updated to close loopholes like the ones in the regulations that enforce the Clean Water Act.
We need to modernize the 1872 Mining Law. With meaningful reform we may be able to prevent future disasters like the Animas spill and ensure that abandoned mines are cleaned up and no longer threaten communities and the environment.
For more information:
- Earthworks/Mineral Policy Center: Burden of Gilt
- Earthworks: Inventory of abandoned mines in the western United States. Maps (pdfs) of abandoned mine locations at the state and county level.
- General Accountability Office: Abandoned Mines: Information on the Number of Hardrock Mines, Cost of Cleanup, and Value of Financial Assurances. 2011 testimony provides the most conservative government estimate of abandoned mine numbers and reclamation costs.
- Environmental Protection Agency: Abandoned Mine Lands.
EPA's central information repository regarding abandoned mine issues.
- Western Governor's Association: Cleaning Up Abandoned Mines - a western partnership.
A 1998 joint report with the National Mining Association remarkable primarily because the industry also acknowledges the extent of the problem encompasses hundreds of thousands of mines.