CU-Boulder Report Calls For Cleanup Of West's Toxic Abandoned Mines

January 11, 2006

Alerting Westerners to the importance of and widespread support for cleaning up abandoned hardrock mines and their legacy of toxic pollution in Western waterways is the main goal of a new report from the University of Colorado at Boulder's Center of the American West.

The 47-page report is titled "Cleaning Up Abandoned Hardrock Mines in the West: Prospecting for a Better Future" and was released Jan. 11 during a press conference at the Denver office of the Environmental Protection Agency. It was produced to serve as a public guide explaining the key aspects of the abandoned mine problem, according to Patricia Limerick, the report's lead author and faculty director of the CU-Boulder Center of the American West.

"Abandoned mines and their acidic discharge have left a legacy of toxic contamination in our Western waterways," said Limerick, a professor of history and environmental studies. "Fortunately, the dilemma of acid mine drainage is not a problem beyond solution. People of goodwill can unite and have united behind the cause of dealing productively and positively with this problem."

Mining is a necessary part of modern life, providing raw materials used in everything from drink containers to computers. Mining also is important economically in Colorado and other Western states. However, the legacy of abandoned mines on the ground and in the water is not so positive.

The report cites a U.S. Bureau of Mines estimate that 12,000 miles of waterways in the West, or about 40 percent, are contaminated from acid mine drainage, as well as 180,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs.

"Such figures might be overstated," the report states. "But even if we lower our standards for what we call an impaired stream, we still come to the sobering realization that a great deal of wilderness, much of it located in National Forests and other public lands, is partially or wholly spoiled for fishing, hunting and hiking."

"Abandoned mines present widespread and stubborn water-quality problems throughout the Intermountain West," said EPA regional administrator Robbie Roberts. "We applaud the Center of the American West's leadership in advancing the dialogue on new approaches to mine cleanups. These efforts will enhance our collective ability to protect Western waters and the communities that depend on them."

Currently and ironically, many abandoned mines are still polluting waterways because the Clean Water Act stands as one of the principal obstacles for the treatment of acid mine drainage, according to the report.

"The Clean Water Act requires treatment of acid mine drainage to standards that can't always be achieved with the resources available to community groups interested in cleaning up their watershed, and the act imposes liability on any group that attempts a cleanup," said CU-Boulder Professor Joseph Ryan of the civil, environmental and architectural engineering department, who co-authored the report. "So unless the site is an immediate threat to human health and the EPA steps in, very little cleanup is getting done. We need legislation to let these community groups, these Good Samaritans, tackle the problems locally."

Current federal laws do not allow Good Samaritans to partially clean up mines. Instead, they must achieve the highest water quality standards or do nothing at all, according to the report. The Clean Water Act sends the unforeseen and unintended message that "if you try to help, you can be held responsible for both the cost of the cleanup and for the ongoing cost of water treatment in perpetuity," the report states.

The report concludes that there is widespread support from government, industry and conservation groups for federal Good Samaritan legislation to protect those who want to clean up abandoned mines, but fear they will be penalized by existing laws.

To help clean up toxic abandoned mines the report suggests that Westerners:

o Support the introduction and passage of both state and federal Good Samaritan laws.

o Separate the Good Samaritan liability exemption from the requirement that currently operating mining companies foot the bill for the cleanup. Instead, launch positive and forward-looking discussions on possible funding strategies for the cleanup of abandoned mines, strategies that are not narrowly punitive in their approach to the current mining industry.

o Do not overlook, however, existing federal law that would allow cleanups to proceed, especially under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act -- commonly known as Superfund -- brownfield reclamation projects and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.

o Don't demonize the mining industry of the past; we are all too dependent on metals and minerals to get away with that.

o Consider procedures that result in partial cleanups in those cases where the requirement for full Clean Water Act compliance by Good Samaritans simply discourages any remediation efforts and brings the whole process to a halt.

o Consider the possibility of offering (or tolerating) an incentive by which mining companies could combine remediation of an abandoned mine with revenue-generating activities.

o Be aware that current mining operations can create the conditions for acid mine drainage production and other environmental problems.

o Build coalitions. The more diverse and inclusive the stakeholder group, the better the chance that the complexities and complications of a site cleanup might be worked out for a sound environmental, economical and community result.

Allan Comp, a renowned innovator in abandoned mine land reclamation in Pennsylvania's coal country and CU-Boulder Center of the American West staff member Timothy Brown also were co-authors of the report.

The mission of the Center of the American West is to identify and address critical issues in the West and help Westerners become well-informed, participating citizens in their communities. Some of these issues include multiculturalism, community building, fire policy, and land, water and energy use.

Contents of the full report are posted on the Web at http://www.centerwest.org/
For more information or to purchase copies of the report for $5 each contact the CU-Boulder Center of the American West at (303) 492-4879.

Give FeedbackSee More Photos View Photo