Ever since the Gold King mine accident this August in Colorado, public interest has grown – with Congress following suit – in the murky environmental legacy issue of abandoned mines that are pervasive across the American landscape. Often unbeknownst even to nearby neighbors, abandoned mines represent a pastime of American history that drove Western development and fueled – often literally – the rapid growth of our country’s infrastructure.
Mines come in many sorts: open pit, placer and hardrock. Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is another, more complex hydrocarbon extraction method. The minerals extracted from these mines help pave our roads, produce power and are critical to many of our modern day electronics. When the cost of extracting minerals exceeds the value a mining company receives, the mines are shut down. Unfortunately, in the early days of mining before federal law required companies to remediate sites shafts were simply boarded up at the end of the mines useful life. In many cases, for the next decade or two water would fill the abandoned mining shaft and mix with leftover mineral content to create a toxic sludge. On August 5, 2015 in Silverton, Colorado a dam holding back a mustard-colored tidal wave of sulfuric acid laden water was breached by a contractor of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) working in the area to set up monitoring equipment. (See live footage of the breach occurring here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBlR05tDCbI). The resulting deluge closed down the Animas River.
Congress has responded to the Gold King mine incident by introducing legislation that would provide additional resources and avenues for local communities to utilize if an abandoned mine thereat exists. A hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday focused of two efforts under consideration: H.R. 3844 would create a new entity that could independently help with abandoned mine remediation, and importantly, accept private foundation money. The second bill, H.R. 3843 would extend Good Samaritan liability to the private sector to assist in abandon mine clean ups – an idea that’s been met with resistance because some argue mining companies could take advantage of the protection.
Abandoned mines, orphaned wells and toxic sites are all legacy environmental issues that can be addressed by good engineering practices. However, remediation plans must have buy-in across all levels of government and the community to be successful. In the case of Gold King, for years the local community rejected being listed on the National Priorities List (NPL) for potential Superfund aid, fearing negative publicity. The decision to reject NPL status was in part fueled because Superfund is subject to annual appropriations and the guaranteed revenue stream (a tax on oil and chemical production) expired in the 1990’s, meaning it can take decades for Superfund project to commence. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) is trying to restate that tax. (See related recent GAO article on Superfund).