This Land Is Mine Land

Abandoned mines are polluting Western waterways.

November 17, 2014

When the rains came to Patagonia, Arizona, at the end of September, orange crayon–colored liquid flowed from the mountains toward the town’s water supply. An abandoned lead-and-silver mine had flooded, lacing the runoff with aluminum, iron, and manganese. Officials don’t know exactly how much of the pollution wound up in the watershed, but they’re working to stop the orange stream of toxic metals from flowing into Sonoita Creek and Patagonia Lake, where they could kill fish.

It probably wasn’t the first time this mine has leaked.

“It’s one of those situations where if you’re not out there, you’re not going to see it,” says Wendy Russell, a coordinator for the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance.

Lead Queen is just one of 130 inactive mines in this town, located 20 miles from the Mexico border. But abandoned mines are leaking all across the country—and no one is doing much about it. Pennsylvania has hundreds of old coal mines sending iron sulfide into waterways and suffocating aquatic life. Storm water picks up mercury as it flows through this Michigan mine, and deserted gold mines in the West are contaminating California’s Sacramento Valley. As the Center for Investigative Reporting points out, 500,000 U.S. mines are threatening our health and that of wildlife as they drain into tens of thousands of waterways.

Photo: el-toro

Some of the owners simply upped and left. Others declared bankruptcy, leaving their leftover acidic tailings and heavy metals to seep into soil and groundwater. The government pays for some cleanups through the Superfund program, but the industry is pretty much off the hook when it comes to dealing with the mess it’s made. As of now, there are about 85 mines or smelters on the Superfund list, but there’s no dollar amount committed specifically to dealing with them.

“Money is the reason they are not getting cleaned up,” says Lauren Pagel of Earthworks, a nonprofit dedicated to energy and mineral development issues. “There’s no dedicated funding source, and lots of these sites are really contaminated and complicated to clean.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that it could cost as much as $50 billion to remedy the country’s mine problem. For example, the price tag for fixing Colorado’s Pennsylvania Mine, which leaches cadmium, mercury, and lead into a reservoir that provides Denver’s drinking water, is an estimated $3 million.

It’s much cheaper to catch the runoff before it hits a waterway than it is to collect, treat, and discharge mine water. But when a state, private organization, or conservation group wants to help in this way, it’s an all-or-nothing decision—meaning the federal government forces them to pay for the whole cleanup.

That’s largely because the Clean Water Act requires a permit for any group changing a waterway in any manner, even to protect it. Once the group gets that permit, it’s responsible for any continuing water pollution. So if an organization installs a filter that grabs most of the contamination, it still has to take care of all the pollution the filter misses.

In the last decade, former Colorado senators Ken Salazar and Mark Udall proposed laws that would have given special dispensation to groups doing mining cleanup. Udall’s Good Samaritan bill specifically addressed the Clean Water Act, while Salazar’s also included permit waivers for the Toxic Substances Control and the Solid Waste Disposal acts. NRDC (disclosure) and several other environmental groups opposed the legislation (which didn't go anywhere) due to concerns about the difficulty of mine remediation. They argued that if groups without the proper expertise went in to clean up the mines, they could potentially make leaks worse.

As an alternative solution, Earthworks’ Pagel suggests that mining companies should pay into a fund (a sort of tax) that states and the federal government could then use to remediate mines. Then, even if a company walks away or files for bankruptcy, there’d at least be money in the till.

“Right now our effort is to push the responsible parties to clean up their own messes," Russel says, "because we’re certainly not in a position to do it ourselves.”

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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