Mining industry water #pollution: “Having money immediately available from a responsible party would be a game changer” — Amanda Goodin

From The Associated Press (Matthew Brown) via The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

Every day many millions of gallons of water loaded with arsenic, lead and other toxic metals flow from some of the most contaminated mining sites in the U.S. and into surrounding lakes and streams without being treated, The Associated Press has found.

That torrent is poisoning aquatic life and tainting drinking water sources in Montana, California, Colorado, Oklahoma and at least five other states.

The pollution is a legacy of how the mining industry was allowed to operate in the U.S. for more than a century. Companies that built mines for silver, lead, gold and other “hardrock” minerals could move on once they were no longer profitable, leaving behind tainted water that still leaks out of the mines or is cleaned up at taxpayer expense.

Using data from public records requests and independent researchers, the AP examined 43 mining sites under federal oversight, some containing dozens or even hundreds of individual mines.

The records show that at average flows, more than 50 million gallons (189 million liters) of contaminated wastewater streams daily from the sites. In many cases, it runs untreated into nearby groundwater, rivers and ponds — a roughly 20-million-gallon (76-million-liter) daily dose of pollution that could fill more than 2,000 tanker trucks.

The remainder of the waste is captured or treated in a costly effort that will need to carry on indefinitely, for perhaps thousands of years, often with little hope for reimbursement…

At many mines, the pollution has continued decades after their enlistment in the federal Superfund cleanup program for the nation’s most hazardous sites, which faces sharp cuts under President Donald Trump…

TAINTED WELLS

In mountains outside the Montana capital of Helena, about 30 households can’t drink their tap water because groundwater was polluted by about 150 abandoned gold, lead and copper mines that operated from the 1870s until 1953.

The community of Rimini was added to the Superfund list in 1999. Contaminated soil in residents’ yards was replaced, and the EPA has provided bottled water for a decade. But polluted water still pours from the mines and into Upper Tenmile Creek…

Estimates of the number of such abandoned mine sites range from 161,000 in 12 western states to as many as 500,000 nationwide. At least 33,000 have degraded the environment, according to the Government Accountability Office, and thousands more are discovered every year.

Officials have yet to complete work including basic risk analyses on about 80 percent of abandoned mining sites on federal lands. Most are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, which under Trump is seeking to consolidate mine cleanups with another program and cut their combined 2019 spending from $35 million to $13 million.

PERPETUAL POLLUTION

Problems at some sites are intractable.

Among them:

— In eastern Oklahoma’s Tar Creek mining district, waterways are devoid of life and elevated lead levels persist in the blood of children despite a two-decade effort to clean up lead and zinc mines. More than $300 million has been committed since 1983, but only a small fraction of the impacted land has been reclaimed and contaminated water continues to flow.

— At northern California’s Iron Mountain Mine, cleanup teams battle to contain highly acidic water that percolates through a former copper and zinc mine and drains into a Sacramento River tributary. The mine discharged six tons of toxic sludge daily before an EPA cleanup. Authorities now spend $5 million a year to remove poisonous sludge that had caused massive fish kills, and they expect to keep at it forever.

— In Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, site of the Gold King blowout, some 400 abandoned or inactive mine sites contribute an estimated 15 million gallons (57 million liters) of acid mine drainage per day.

This landscape of polluted sites occurred under mining industry rules largely unchanged since the 1872 Mining Act.

State and federal laws in recent decades have held companies more accountable than in the past, but critics say huge loopholes all but ensure that some of today’s mines will foul waterways or require perpetual cleanups…

QUESTIONS OVER WHO SHOULD PAY

To date, the EPA has spent an estimated $4 billion on mining cleanups. Under Trump, the agency has identified a small number of Superfund sites for heightened attention after cleanup efforts stalled or dragged on for years. They include five mining sites examined by AP.

Former EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus said more money is needed to address mining pollution on a systematic basis, rather than jumping from one emergency response to another…

Democrats have sought unsuccessfully to create a special cleanup fund for old hardrock mine sites, with fees paid by the mining industry. Such a fund has been in place for coal mines since 1977, with more than $11 billion in fees collected and hundreds of sites reclaimed.

The mining industry has resisted doing the same for hardrock mines, and Republicans in Congress have blocked the Democratic proposals.

Montana Mining Association director Tammy Johnson acknowledged abandoned mines have left a legacy of pollution, but added that companies still in operation should not be forced to pay for those problems…

In 2017, the EPA proposed requiring companies still operating mines to post cleanup bonds or offer other financial assurances so taxpayers don’t end up footing cleanup bills. The Trump administration halted the rule, but environmental groups are scheduled to appear in federal court next month in a lawsuit that seeks to revive it.

“When something gets on a Superfund site, that doesn’t mean it instantly and magically gets cleaned up,” said Earthjustice attorney Amanda Goodin. “Having money immediately available from a responsible party would be a game changer.”

Congressional mining reform legislation update

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From the Associated Press via the San Jose Mercury News:

Among proposals to reform the 1872 Mining Law are plans to implement royalties on mining profits for the first time and reclamation fees for cleaning up abandoned mines. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had testified to a Senate committee in July 2009 that he wanted reform that protects mining, protects the environment and provides for the cleanup of such mines. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the New Mexico Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is shepherding the broadest plan, which calls for an adjusted 2 percent to 5 percent royalty after transportation and processing costs are taken out. It also gives the Interior Department more discretion on environmental matters and calls for the money raised under the bill to be used for reclaiming abandoned mine lands. The proposal has the support of a number of conservation groups, including the Washington D.C.-based Earthworks. Cathy Carlson, an adviser to Earthworks, said Bingaman told conservationists who recently met with him that he hoped to move the bill out of committee in April…

Republican Reps. Doug Lamborn, of Colorado, and Rob Bishop, of Utah, have introduced a good Samaritan bill that allows mining companies and nonprofit organizations to clean up old mines without liability for old environmental damage. Bills introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., also focus on abandoned mine provisions. Carlson said Udall’s bill, which reduces cleanup liability under the Clean Water Act, has “broad support.”[…]

Lamborn and Bishop’s proposal calls for a 2 percent net proceeds royalty on new mines on public land, an approach that leaders of the National Mining Association believe is a better fit with mining industry interests. Eklund-Brown said she emphasized in NBC interview yet to air that any royalty must be industry-specific and not compared with those paid by industries such as oil and gas.

More General Mining Act of 1872 coverage here, S.1777 coverage here, S.787 coverage here and S.796 coverage here.

S. 1777: Good Samaritan Cleanup of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act of 2009

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This video about Good Samaritan cleanups has been making the rounds in the blogosphere. Click through and watch it. It takes about 6 minutes.

More S. 1777 coverage here.

S. 796 Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2009: U.S. Senator Bennet signs on as co-sponsor

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From the Associated Press via The Denver Post:

The Colorado Democrat said Thursday that he’s joining Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to reform rules covering the mining of gold, copper, uranium and other minerals. The bill would assess royalties on hard-rock mining on public land for the first time at rates of 2 percent to 5 percent. The proposal also would eliminate the ability to buy public land for mining for as little as $2.50 an acre. It would require reviewing whether some public land should be off-limits to development.

More S. 796 coverage here.

ASARCO parent Grupo Mexico ponies up $1.79 billion for mining cleanup

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From the Environmental News Service:

ASARCO LLC is a mining, smelting, and refining company based in Tucson, Arizona that mines and processes primarily copper. Parent corporation Grupo Mexico is providing the $1.79 billion to resolve the ASARCO’s environmental liabilities from operations that contaminated land, water and wildlife resources on federal, state, tribal and private land in 19 states. “Through this historic settlement, the American public is compensated for the damage and loss of natural resources resulting from ASARCO’s past mining, smelting and refining operations,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “Were it not for this agreement, these injured resources would either remain impaired for future generations or require taxpayer expenditures to achieve environmental restoration.” The money from environmental settlements in the bankruptcy will be used to pay for past and future costs incurred by federal and state agencies at the more than 80 sites contaminated by mining operations in 19 states, said federal officials…

The contaminated Superfund sites are in Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Washington.

More superfund coverage here.

Uncompahgre River: ‘Examining Abandoned Mine Lands in the Uncompahgre Watershed’ December 11

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From The Telluride Watch (Gus Jarvis):

The Uncompahgre Watershed Planning Partnership will be hosting a daylong workshop titled “Examining Abandoned Mine Lands in the Uncompahgre Watershed” on Friday, Dec. 11 from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Ouray Community Center. Various representatives from state and local organizations will be attending the workshop, which will focus on reclamation activities and abandoned mine lands in the upper Uncompahgre watershed. The workshop’s organizer, Andrew Madison, who is an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer working in Ridgway to develop a mine reclamation strategy for abandoned mine lands in the watershed, said that while there has already been a lot of mine reclamation work completed in the area, the work has just begun…

The Uncompahgre Watershed Planning Partnership is a volunteer group seeking to involve citizens and organizations in the Uncompahgre watershed. Its mission is to protect and restore water quality in the Uncompahgre River through coordinated community and agency efforts. “I am really looking forward to the workshop,” Madison said. “I have had a great response so far and I am looking forward to getting people to talk to each other on these issues.” For more information about “Examining Abandoned Mine Lands in the Uncompahgre Watershed” contact Madison at 413/297-7232 or at ridgway.vista@gmail.com.

More Uncompahgre River watershed coverage here and here.

S.1777 and S.796: What do the bills mean for acid mine drainage cleanup efforts?

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From the Colorado Independent (Katie Redding):

…toxic waterways around the state and country — are at the center of a legislative tug of war. So-called Good Samaritan laws seek to lift liability so clean-up work can begin. Those laws, however, are opposed by environmentalists who argue they might erode the strong federal Clean Water Act. The better approach, they say, is to make mining companies pay to properly clean up the messes they have made and are making by revamping the nation’s 1872 Mining Law, which has let the extraction industry off the hook for more than a century…

Proponents of Udall’s Good Samaritan legislation, however, argue that the legislation is not meant to substitute for the new 1872 Mining Law reform bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by fellow Democrat Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, a bill that would at last set up severance taxes to pay for cleanups. Good Sam legislation, they argue, is a necessary corollary to Bingaman’s legislation. “You need all the pieces,” said Peter Butler of the Animas River Stakeholders Group. “Even if you did set up a fund with severance taxes, you’ve got to have someone who is going to use that money, and they’re not willing to use it if they’re going to be liable.”[…]

DRMS Abandoned Mine Program Manager Loretta Pineda said fear of legal liability is real and a major stopping point in clean up projects. Pineda said the state is stymied by fear of incurring the Clean Water Act financial burdens that currently faces any third party that would take it upon itself to drain an abandoned mine. “There are several projects we’d like to work on, but we’re unable to do so because of liability,” said Pineda flatly.

In the Animas River Watershed, the Animas River Stakeholders Group has determined that of the 1,500 historic mine sites contributing cadmium, copper, aluminum, manganese, zinc, lead and iron to the watershed, about 34 waste sites contribute roughly 90 percent of the waste-site pollution, and about 33 draining mines contribute 90 percent of the draining-mine pollution. Bill Simon, a member of the group, explained that the group can address the waste sites without incurring liability, because no water is involved. But work on most of the 33 draining mines — apart from 5 addressed by a mining company and several that are on federal land — await some kind of liability waiver, said Simon. Even if the group had funding, neither the Animas River Stakeholders Group nor any other agency is willing to risk being sued for a problem not of their making, according to Simon.

More S.1777 coverage here and S.796 coverage here.