Guest Column by Allyson Siwik, Executive Director, Gila Resources Information Project
We watched in horror and sadness the images of an orange, heavy metal-laden plume of mine wastewater flow down the Animas River from an accidental release at the inactive Gold King Mine in Colorado, impacting communities, farmers, wildlife, and recreation along the way. Our thoughts are with the people who have been adversely affected, as well as those who are working around the clock to clean up and restore the watersheds contaminated by the accident.
What has slowly emerged through the media frenzy and blame game is that EPA was attempting to clean up the inactive Gold King Mine to stop the on-going release of contaminated water when a plug holding back rising groundwater burst. The Gold King Mine is just one of hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines in our country, mostly in the West. 15,000 abandoned mine features can be found here in New Mexico according to the state Abandoned Mine Lands program. These sites are the legacy of the federal 1872 Mining Law that to this day still allows hardrock mining companies free reign to mine anywhere on our public lands without paying any royalties on the minerals extracted and without any environmental requirements for operations and clean up.
Because of the lack of environmental safeguards, mining companies historically walked away from their operations leaving a toxic mess behind. These abandoned mine lands continue to degrade surface and ground water quality, affect wildlife and impact recreational opportunities. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 40% of the headwaters of Western watersheds have been polluted by mining, and it will take $50 billion to clean up these environmental liabilities.
The federal Superfund Program, created to clean up toxic waste sites, is significantly underfunded and insufficient to address the magnitude of this problem. Across the state of New Mexico clean up of abandoned mine sites has been hampered by lack of funding.
Here in southwest New Mexico, reclamation of abandoned mine sites is far from complete. Although some of the most contaminated sites have been cleaned up, such as the Cleveland Mill site, funding has been a critical obstacle to remediation.
Cleanup of the San Vicente tailings floundered for years given lack of funding. Monies from a natural resource damage claim settlement against Freeport-McMoRan for contamination of thousands of acre-feet of groundwater at its mines was used to reclaim the San Vicente tailings site and implement other groundwater restoration projects.
More local cleanup is needed. The Pinos Altos Mining District site has 800,000 cubic yards of soil with heavy metal concentrations above EPA health screening levels. Gila Resources Information Project and community partners are working with state and federal regulators to move forward with risk assessment and reclamation at the site.
What can we do to clean up the hundreds of thousands of abandoned mine sites across the nation and prevent future impacts to our environment from mining activities?
Clearly the 143-year old federal mining law needs to be reformed. We need to establish mining-specific environmental safeguards, clean up abandoned mines through creation of an “Abandoned Mine Land Fund”, charge royalties on minerals taken from public lands, and require that companies put in place reclamation bonding with clear environmental standards to protect taxpayers from footing the bill for cleanup.
At the state level, we need strong environmental laws and enforcement of those laws to ensure that our water supplies and environment are protected from current mining operations.
Yet, recent efforts here in New Mexico have focused on relaxing environmental protections, putting our groundwater and environment at risk. The Martinez administration’s promulgation of the “Copper Rule” allows copper mines to pollute groundwater at mine sites rather than prevent contamination. The Copper Rule is now under review by the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Additionally, global mining giant Freeport-McMoRan attempted this last legislative session to weaken the New Mexico Mining Act potentially relieving mining companies from clean up at inactive mine sites on “standby status,” as well as other roll-backs. That bill died in committee thanks to key legislators and community activists who were quick to respond at the 11th hour attempt to gut this important piece of legislation.
Let the Gold King Mine accident be a reminder that there is much work to be done to ensure that all mines are cleaned up responsibly to protect our environment and public health.