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Innovations could help address abandoned mine problems

House committee members call for mining law reforms
An abandoned wheelhouse shed sits atop an old mine shaft high in the San Juan Mountains north of Silverton on Aug. 14, 2015. The mines that settlers built in the booms of the 19th century are an ever-present part of the landscape in this mineral-rich part of Colorado.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Innovations in the mining industry that could help the nation address the cleanup of abandoned mines were discussed last week during a hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

The hearing, held by the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, included the examination of how the mining industry and others can more effectively monitor and clean up abandoned mine sites, as well as the need to update laws guiding the industry.

“Incredibly, we still have the same 19th-century mining laws on the books today that were written when the telegraph was the state-of-the-art technology,” said ranking member Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D- Calif.

Lowenthal mentioned legislation that is being drafted to help with the cleanup of abandoned mines, including the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act, which he co-sponsored and was introduced to the committee in February.

The Hardrock Mining Act is one of several legislative efforts to help clean up abandoned mine sites. Subcommittee chairman Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., introduced the Locatable Minerals Claim Location and Maintenance Fees Act in November 2015, which would offer incentives for private companies to clean up abandoned mines.

Colorado Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet and Rep. Scott Tipton introduced their own bill, the Good Samaritan Cleanup of Orphan Mines Act, in February. It would allow nonprofits, local governments and others to voluntary clean up abandoned mine sites without incurring liability.

While Lowenthal acknowledged that such legislation is a positive step forward, he said it is not enough to solve the problem.

“Voluntary efforts from good Samaritans and donors can only get us so far in a problem of this magnitude,” he said.

“We need comprehensive mining reform in this country, and we need it as soon as possible.”

Witnesses who testified last week included experts from private mining and engineering companies, including Carl Brackpool, an Innovation Team Member at NTT Innovation Institute Inc.

During the hearing, Lamborn asked Brackpool whether the Gold King Mine spill in August 2015 could have been foreseen or prevented if more mining engineers were on site.

Brackpool did not directly answer Lamborn's question but did say his company is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to embed more technology such as micro-sensors in abandoned mines to help monitor toxin levels.

Contractors for the EPA accidentally breached the mine, releasing 3 million gallons of mining sludge into Cement Creek. The plume traveled into the Animas and San Juan rivers.

The incident led to a call for Superfund status for the mining district near Silverton, and the EPA has identified 48 mining-related sites that could be part of a federal cleanup effort.

Other witnesses, such as James Kuipers, a consulting engineer with Kuipers & Associates of Wisdom, Montana, were more critical of third-party cleanup efforts of mine sites, and said that companies must take on the issue themselves.

“I think it's critical that the industry realize that in order to move forward in the 21st century, you can't just leave the legacy issue behind and act as if it's somebody else's issue,” Kuipers said.

“It's something that I think as part of a responsible mining industry we need to address, we need to be a part of and we need to not look to taxpayers for the solution.”

Kate Magill is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern with The Durango Herald. Reach her at kmagill@durangoherald.com. This article has been updated to attribute the final quote to James Kuipers. It was incorrectly attributed to Mark Board.

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