Geoff Liesik / The Deseret News / AP

The Colorado mine spill was predictable and preventable

Abandoned mines are pollution traps that industry has avoided cleaning up for over a century

August 15, 2015 2:00AM ET

Westerners know the value of clean water. From farmers in California to brewers in Colorado and fishermen in Montana, water is a part of everything we do. But our water is scarce, so we know not to put our limited water resources at risk.

Unfortunately, reckless mining companies have been doing just that for more than a century. As we saw in Colorado last week, mining for gold and other hard rock minerals can create toxic mixes of acid and metals that threaten our rivers and drinking water supplies. In Colorado, the Gold King mine released over 3 million gallons of mine pollution, affecting some 100 river miles in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah and countless people along the way.

What many headlines failed to mention is that the Gold King mine is not unique. The West is plagued with hundreds of thousands of similar old mines, long forgotten and unused. Many of these mines are pollution traps, with toxic wastewater slowly building up over time, indefinitely.

Pollution from metal mines has polluted aquifers, created long-standing public health risks and destroyed fish, wildlife and their habitats. The EPA estimates that abandoned and inactive mines have polluted 40 percent of the sources of Western rivers. The culprit behind the toxic orange color of Colorado’s Animas River is acid mine drainage, just one form of mine pollution. Acid mine drainage is so persistent, it can continue for hundreds to thousands of years — essentially forever. It can dissolve other harmful substances such as arsenic from the surrounding rock, wreaking havoc on plant and animal life.

What allows this kind of pollution to continue to threaten our scarce water resources? On a national level, the problem stems from the 1872 Mining Law. An antiquated law enacted before the light bulb was invented, it still governs metal mining on federal public lands and allows mining corporations to remove gold, silver and other valuable minerals from our public lands with no royalty payments and no environmental standards. It prioritizes mining over all other land uses. 

Until last week’s disastrous spill, taxpayers have been largely unaware of the massive financial burden the mining industry has imposed on them.

As long as mining is governed by a 143-year-old law, funds to clean up Gold King and other mines like it will remain severely limited, and safe drinking water that people depend on across the West will be at risk. From 1997 to 2008, federal agencies spent at least $2.6 billion on hard rock mine cleanup. It sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t. Earthworks, the environmental advocacy organization I lead, estimates that cleaning up all the abandoned and inactive mines across the country may cost $32 billion to $72 billion. Either that price tag gets paid by polluters or it comes out of taxpayers’ pockets.

The government has the authority to require the mining industry to put up bonds to cover their cleanup costs and prevent the burden from falling on the taxpayer. However, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has found that these bonds are woefully inadequate.

There is a solution. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., has introduced legislation that would modernize the 1872 Mining Law. It would charge the mining industry a reclamation fee to help fund abandoned mine restoration. Placing an incredibly low fee — just 7 cents per ton — on mined rock would make a huge difference without unduly burdening mining corporations. It would also recognize that the West is no longer a region in need of settlement (as it was in 1872) but a place in need of conservation. The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 (otherwise known as HR 963) could protect communities and precious water resources and help avert disasters.

But neither this bill nor similar versions in recent years have even received a hearing in Congress. Mining corporations have lobbied hard to avoid paying to clean up their messes, and until last week’s disastrous spill, taxpayers have been largely unaware of the massive financial burden this industry has imposed on them. Asking mining companies to clean up after themselves is more than fair.

As most of the West suffers from prolonged drought, we cannot afford more spills, and we cannot continue to ignore abandoned and inactive mines that put our precious water resources — such as the Animas, San Juan and Colorado rivers — at risk. It’s time to modernize the 1872 Mining Law and keep our waters safe. 

Jennifer Krill is the executive director at Earthworks, the only national nonprofit advocacy organization focused exclusively on protecting communities and the environment from the adverse effects of extractive industries.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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EPA, Mining, Water

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