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Funding to reclaim abandoned mines falls short

Colorado programs have reclaimed 6,000 of 23,000 abandoned mining sites
Chris Peltz, a consultant, left, Kirsten Brown, with the Department of Reclamation and Mine Safety, and Bill Simon, a former co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, take a soil samples in 2013 below the San Antonio Mine and near the Congress Mine near Red Mountain Pass. The area was reclaimed years earlier, but thousands of abandoned mines across the country await cleanup.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – State and federal mine cleanup programs have had a difficult time making headway because the projects are so costly.

U.S. House members gathered last week to discuss the allocation of funds in the federal program to reclaim abandoned mines. The federal dollars filter down to the states, where each decides how to best spend the money and add its own funding.

One government report estimates that 33,000 abandoned hard-rock mines are causing environmental problems across the nation. Experts in the hearing said that the number of abandoned mines nationally is growing as more sites are discovered.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement said it spends $3 for construction on site for every dollar spent on non-construction costs. Of the $8.5 billion the bureau was approved to distribute, almost $5 billion has been spent on costs related to abandoned mine reclamation.

In a report, OSMRE concluded that management granted funds to states without assurance that requirements on the sites were fully met.

Colorado received $1.1 million in federal grants this year to restore mined lands. Jeff Graves, the Colorado director of the Inactive Mines Reclamation Program, said once the federal program ends in 2021, the allocated money left won’t be enough.

“There is recognition within the community that that trust fund would not be sufficient to fully reclaim all of the remaining mines,” Graves said.

The Inactive Mine Reclamation Program estimated more than 6,000 of the estimated 23,000 abandoned mine lands in Colorado have been reclaimed since the program’s start in 1980.

Rob Rice, chief of the Office of Abandoned Mine Lands and Reclamation in West Virginia, said the lack of funding means officials must decide between doing a complete reclamation of a few sites, or addressing only specific high-risk problems and hoping lower priorities don’t manifest into bigger issues.

Rice said nationally a lot has been accomplished, but much remains to be done.

“The problem with abandoned mines is that they’re everyone’s problem but no one’s responsibility,” Rice said during the June 7 hearing before the House subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

Abandoned mines can cause significant environmental impacts, such as the release of high levels of toxic minerals. Incidents such as the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill near Silverton are one of the reasons government officials advocate for mine reclamation, a process to restore the lands to pre-mining. EPA contractors working at the Gold King Mine caused a collapse that contractors unleashed 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River. In the spill’s first year of clean up, it cost the EPA $29 million for response and water-quality monitoring.

Reclaiming mines is a long and arduous process with the end goal of creating usable land, such as for farming or a wildlife habitat. Graves added that part of the process is to evaluate potential dangers.

“You always have to be careful when you are dealing with these abandoned sites,” Graves said. “You have a lot of unknown issues because each site is very unique.”

Graves noted the average site takes three years for complete reclamation.

Congressman Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and Colorado’s U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner, R-CO., and Michael Bennet, D-CO., support the Good Samaritan Cleanup bill as an alternative to reliance on federal government programs. The bill turns to state agencies, nonprofits, the mining industry and local governments to help clean and restore mine sites. The bill aims to deal with questions of legal liability a group could face if there was a spill or negative environmental repercussions.

“With the Good Samaritan bill, it is a great step forward in order to get to that common ground we all want to get to,” Tipton said. “That way, we are actually cleaning up those abandoned mines and creating river health and land health as well.”

Tipton said he was cautiously optimistic about the bill moving forward, but it takes time to ensure everything is done correctly and within regulations.

Graves said while the bill could prove helpful, the current form won’t be too useful to Coloradans without the inclusion of hard-rock mines.

The spill ultimately led to creation of the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, which includes the Gold King Mine and 47 other mining-related sites in the Silverton area.

President Donald J. Trump’s budget proposal for next year plans to cut Superfund by 30 percent, but it’s unclear how that would impact ongoing cleanup and monitoring at the Silverton site.

Josephine Peterson is a reporting intern for The Durango Herald in Washington, D.C., and a recent graduate of American University. Reach her at jpeterson@durangoherald.com and follow her on Twitter @jopeterson93.

This story has been edited to reflect the information about how much the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement spends for constructions and non-construction costs.

Jul 2, 2022
Gardner, Tipton introduce mine-cleanup bill
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