Word that a criminal investigation is under way for the devastating wastewater spill from the Gold King Mine near Silverton should get political and regulatory leaders thinking about the far larger cleanup that is necessary in the nation’s abandoned mines.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General revealed recently that the U.S. Justice Department has launched a criminal probe of the spill, which sent 3 million gallons of mine wastewater into rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, turning the waters yellow with a variety of toxic heavy metals.
The spill highlights the magnitude of the problem of abandoned mines, which number a half million throughout the West. The Colorado Geological Survey estimates that 23,000 abandoned mines exist in Colorado alone, including in Boulder County. In some cases, the mines have been abandoned for more than a century, as companies ceased production of gold, silver or other metals.
Funding to address the problem has been very limited. As The Denver Post recently noted, companies operating hard-rock mines pay no federal royalties such as those paid by coal-mining companies, nor do they pay into any reclamation fund.
Abandonedminelands.gov, a web portal maintained by a variety of federal agencies, lists several dangers posed by abandoned mines, including health concerns related to increasing populations coming into greater contact with contaminants because of recreational activities on public lands adjacent to abandoned mines.
Health concerns can come from contamination of fish to radiation exposure from uranium mines.
Environmental dangers highlighted by the site include sediment contamination, water pollution, air pollution and dangers posed to threatened and endangered species.
As we saw with the Gold King disaster, spills from mines can devastate the environment and recreational tourism.
So what’s being done? Not enough. Federal agencies spend $80 million to $85 million annually on reclamation of abandoned hard-rock mines, according to the website. That’s compared with the $35 billion to $72 billion estimated cost of reclaiming all abandoned hard-rock mines in the United States.
Getting additional funds approved will be a challenge, but, on the surface, it’s not a partisan issue. Political leaders from both parties would acknowledge the scope of the problem, and the dangers — to health, safety, the environment and the economy — in leaving a half million abandoned mines untouched.
But how to pay for cleanup is the rub, leading to partisan bickering. Should governmental leaders take another look at the lack of royalties paid by hard-rock mining companies? That’s sure to be opposed by the mining sector.
Should additional sites be added to the Superfund list, providing for some funding? Superfund itself is lacking. Should mining companies pay for their own cleanup? Many of the sites haven’t been mined in generations, with current owners having nothing to do with the initial mining efforts.
But, given that the West — especially Colorado — has both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, one could hope for progress on the issue. And progress means a plan — and funds.
Christopher Wood can be reached at 303-630-1942 or 970-232-3133 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org