550,000 abandoned mines, $50 billion to clean up the worst of them

Aerial photo of waste water rushing out of the Gold King mine in Silverton, CO. Photo: Steve Garrison/The Daily Times

Aerial photo of waste water rushing out of the Gold King mine in Silverton, CO. Photo: Steve Garrison/The Daily Times

[ Abandoned mines can cause soil erosion, heavy metal contamination (i.e., cyanide, lead, arsenic, mercury, uranium), and acid drainage that threatens thousands of streams and rivers. The EPA estimates it would cost $50 billion to reclaim abandoned and inactive mine sites.  

Cleanup funds don’t exist because mining companies, unlike gas and oil concerns, do not pay royalties to the federal government for what they extract from public lands.  The U.S. Bureau of Land Management began requiring funds from miners in 2001 to use for cleanup, though many doubt there is enough money.  Environmental groups are also trying to force the EPA to require mining companies to set aside cleanup money.

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Mining waste seen from airplane, probably in Utah

Once oil starts its inevitable decline, it is not likely mine sites will be cleaned up as oil increasingly is allocated only to the most critical needs.  We really ought to be cleaning up these mines now since future generations won’t have the energy to do so.  Yet even if someone wants to clean up a mine for free –a “Good Samaritan” –this is not so easy to do, as you’ll find out below in this U.S. House hearing.   

Mining has been going on for nearly 150 years, most of it before any environmental regulation, and mines have been abandoned without any reclamation or efforts to protect the environment from damage.  No one knows exactly how many mines there are, some estimates are that there are over 550,000 on public and private lands.   The Government Accountability Office estimates there are over 160,000 abandoned hard rock mines in the western states and Alaska and that about 20% of these sites (about 33,000) are harming the surrounding environment  (USGAO).

The EPA estimates about 40% of headwaters in rivers and streams in the West, which are the source of drinking water for thousands of persons, have been impacted by discharges from abandoned hardrock mines, thus threatening community and agricultural water supplies, increasing drinking water treatment costs, and limiting fishing and recreation.  The number of mines that are causing or have potential to harm the environment is unknown, but is generally believed to  about 5 to 10% of the half million sites – so somewhere from 25,000 to 50,000 that need remediation of some kind

Here is where you can find some additional information about mine cleanup:

Additional headlines about mining

2016-03-26 90% of Indigenous in Brazil’s Amazon Suffer Mercury Poisoning

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation, 2015, Springer]

Gold mine near Carlin Nevada (from google earth)

Gold mine near Carlin Nevada (from google earth)

House 109-62. March 30, 2006. Barriers to the cleanup of abandoned mine sites. U.S. House hearing. 142 pages.


Mr. DUNCAN. This hearing is on barriers to the cleanup of abandoned mine sites around the Country. Hopefully we will hear about potential ways to encourage volunteers to help clean up these sites. Past mining activities which occurred when mining practices were less sophisticated than today have disturbed hundreds of thousands of acres of land, altered drainage patterns and generated substantial amounts of waste scattered around the landscape. Today there are several hundred thousands of these old mine sites in the U.S., staff briefing memo say about half a million. Many of these mines were abandoned by the owners or operators a long time ago, when the remaining minerals became too difficult or costly to extract.

Although operated consistent with the governing laws at the time, many of these abandoned mines now pose environmental and health threats to surrounding surface and groundwater and to downstream interests. Nationally, tens of thousands of miles of streams are polluted by acid mine drainage and toxic loadings of heavy metals leeching from many of these old mines, impacting fisheries and water supplies.

State and Federal agencies have worked to remedy these problems, but the number of sites and the expense involved has made progress very slow. A lot of these old mine lands lack a viable owner or operator with the resources to remediate them. Many others are truly abandoned, with no identifiable owner or operator to hold responsible. As a result, few of these old mine sites are getting cleaned up.

Public or private volunteers are Good Samaritans, have been willing to partially remediate many of these sites. These Good Samaritans may be driven by a desire to improve the environment, others may want to improve water quality at their water supply source. Still others may want to clean up an old mine site for the purpose of re-mining the area or developing it in some other way.

However, most Good Samaritans have been deterred from carrying out these projects by the risk of becoming liable for complete cleanup required by various environmental laws. This is because current Federal law does not allow for partial cleanups. For example, if a Good Samaritan steps in to partially clean up an abandoned mine site, that party could become liable under the Clean Water Act or Superfund for a greater level of cleanup and higher costs than the party initially volunteered for. Because they could face the legal consequences if they fall short of complete cleanup, most potential Good Samaritans refrain from attempting to address a site’s pollution problems at all.

Federal policy should encourage and not discourage parties to volunteer themselves to clean up abandoned sites. We should consider whether in some circumstances environmental standards should be made more flexible in order to achieve at least partial cleanup of sites that otherwise would remain polluted.

This is not about letting polluters off the hook. They should remain responsible under existing law. However, if a party unconnected to an abandoned mine site steps forward to help with remediation, everyone wins. I believe there is little disagreement that encouraging volunteers to clean up abandoned mine sites is a worthwhile policy.

However, in exploring the details of such a policy a number of issues arise, such as who should be eligible for a lower standard of cleanup; how should new standards be applied; and how should potential re-mining of these sites be addressed. To help us identify and address these and other issues, we have assembled a number of parties who have been actively involved in the debate over how to address the abandoned mines problem in the Country.

Ms. JOHNSON. I must say that I find it somewhat ironic that we are considering legislative proposals to scale back environmental standards in order to achieve improvements in water quality. But that is where we find ourselves. Existing programs that could address mine runoff are either inadequately funded or inadequately enforced. The Administration and the Republican-led Congress have reduced funding for water quality under the Clean Water Act both for point and non-point pollution controls. They have also refused to reinstate funding for cleanup of toxic releases under the Superfund program, so now we look to volunteers where the Government will not help.

Abandoned, inactive mines are a major source of uncontrolled pollution in America’s waters, particularly in the western States.

This Committee has been talking about doing something to encourage volunteer efforts to improve water quality for nearly 15 years. Hopefully, this is the year we can get something enacted.


The problem is large and complex. There are hundreds of thousands of abandoned or inactive mine sites across the Country, and there are thousands that are contributing to water quality impairments and degrading watersheds.  I will focus first on the threat of liability. It is a barrier, a barrier to Good Samaritans stepping forward. It is a barrier under the Superfund laws because of the operator liability or arranger liability.

Those who do not own the land and want to step forward to help remediate these legacy sites face the very real threat that they won’t be able to rely on protections under the Superfund law. They face the very real threat that they will be liable under the Clean Water Act for permitting responsibilities.

Partial cleanups by Good Samaritans will result in meaningful environmental improvements. In many cases the impaired water bodies may never fully meet water quality standards, regardless of how much cleanup or remediation is done.

If the Good Samaritan is going to be improving water quality, that is the real measure, and that is what we wanted to ensure occurs, but not have a barrier where they are held to the same standard as the industrial polluter or the other polluter who created the problem in the first place.

The thing I really wanted to emphasize in the remaining amount of time is on the legislative front. We applaud the efforts, the bipartisan efforts of members of Congress, both sides of the aisle and both chambers. But we ourselves are also aggressively moving forward with developing legislation on behalf of the Administration that will bring together and help add momentum to the effort to get legislation across the finish line. We would be delighted to share that when we can, hopefully in the very near future. But it is focused on streamlined permitting processes, a targeted approach, realistic and common sense standards and really accelerating watershed restoration and protection.

Mr. FROHARDT.   Abandoned and inactive mines are responsible for many of the greatest threats to water quality in western States. We do have thousands of stream miles that are impacted by drainage from these mines and runoff. And we have encountered a situation where there is often no identifiable financially responsible party to clean up these sites.

Mr. PIZARCHIK.  In regard to the barriers to the cleanup of abandoned mines, I would like to talk about our experiences in Pennsylvania regarding the reclamation of abandoned mine lands under Pennsylvania’s Environmental Good Samaritan Act and under our re-mining program. In my home State, we have had over 200 years of mining that have left a legacy of over 200,000 acres of abandoned mine lines. These abandoned sites include open pits, water-filled pits, spoil piles, waste coal piles, mine openings and subsided surface areas. The water-filled pits shown on the easel there in that photo covers 40 acres and is 238 feet deep. All that water is acid mine drainage. It will cost over $20 million to reclaim it.

We also have thousands of abandoned mine discharges with varying degrees of acid, iron, aluminum, manganese and sulfates in the water. Some of the discharges are small and some are quite large. One such large discharge is a tunnel that drains over a 20 square mile area and discharges 40,000 gallons per minute.

According to an EPA Region III list from 1995, there were 3,158 miles of Pennsylvania streams affected by mine drainage. Over the last 60 years, Pennsylvania has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on abandoned mine problems. It became clear that without help from others, Government efforts alone would take many decades and billions of dollars to clean up all of the problems.

Additional options were needed. One option was re-mining. We found that operators were obtaining mining permits for abandoned sites and were mining the coal that was previously economically and technologically impossible to recover. However, such re-mining and reclamation was not occurring on sites that contained mine drainage.

When Pennsylvania officials tried to leverage the State’s limited resources by working with citizen and watershed groups to accomplish more reclamation, we met significant resistance. Citizen groups and mine operators alike would not tackle sites that had mine drainage on them, because State and Federal law imposed liability on them to permanently treat that discharge.

Our re-mining program has been very successful. Of 112 abandoned surface mines containing 233 pre-existing discharges that were re-mined, 48 discharges were eliminated, 61 were improved, 122 showed no significant improvement and 2 were degraded. Thousands of tons of metals deposited into the streams annually were removed. Approximately 140 miles of our streams were improved. Treatment would have cost at least $3 million a year every year to remove that through conventional measures. The benefits of re-mining are not limited to our water quality improvements. Significant amounts of Pennsylvania’s abandoned mine lands have been reclaimed at no cost to the Government. Over the past 10 years, 465 projects reclaimed over 250,000 acres and eliminated 140 miles of dangerous high wall. Abandoned waste coal piles were eliminated. Abandoned pits were filled. And lands were restored to a variety of productive uses, including wildlife habitat.

On the photo that you see there, those are elk. They are Pennsylvania elk, and they are feeding on a site that was re-mined and reclaimed pursuant to our re-mining program. The estimated value of the reclamation that was accomplished through re-mining in the past 10 years exceeds $1 billion.

Separate from our re-mining laws is Pennsylvania’s Environmental Good Samaritan Act. Like re-mining, only projects approved by our Department are eligible for the protection. Approval is required to ensure that the project is likely to make things better. The project must be an abandoned mine land or abandoned discharge for which there is no liable party. And protections are provided to the land owners, as well as those who are doing the work or providing materials or services.

Pennsylvania has undertaken 34 Good Samaritan projects. Some projects are simple, low-maintenance treatment systems. Others are more complex, like the project in Bittendale, Pennsylvania that transformed an abandoned mine into a part that treats acid mine drainage, celebrates the coal mining heritage and provides recreation facilities for the residents and serves to heighten public awareness about the importance of treating mine drainage.

While Pennsylvania’s Good Samaritan Act has been successful, there are concerns. First, the Federal Clean Water Act citizen supervision still poses a potential liability to these Good Samaritans. Recent developments portend action by some who hold a strict, literal view of the permitting requirements and the total maximum daily load requirements of the Federal Clean Water Act. Without Federal Good Samaritan Act or an amendment to the Clean Water Act providing that Good Samaritan projects and abandoned mine discharges are not point sources or not subject to the permitting requirements, the potential good work of the volunteers in Pennsylvania throughout the Country is at risk. People who would undertake projects to benefit the environment in America could be personally liable for making things better just because they didn’t make them perfect.

Dave Williams, Director, Wastewater, East Bay Municipal Utility District, Oakland, California

I think we need Good Samaritan legislation and what I wanted to do is touch on an example that we had at our district, and then give you some of my thoughts on how the POTW, the publicly owned treatment works, could play a role in this.

Abandoned mines are a big problem. There are over 39,000 alone in California. A lot of waste rock goes along with that, and the acid mine drainage. The East Bay MUD story is that we are a wastewater district serving 1.3 million people in the East San Francisco Bay. Our water supply is on the Mokelumne River in the Sierra Foothills. We have a couple of reservoirs there.

We have a reservoir, and the south shore of that reservoir has an abandoned mine. It is called Penn Mine. It was a major copper producer during World War II, and it was abandoned in the 1950s. When it was abandoned, there were 400,000 cubic yards of waste rock left in piles on the site. That resulted in 100,000 pounds of copper being discharged in the Mokelumne River every single year from acid mind drainage and massive fish kills. We were asked by the State in 1978 to help implement an abatement plan. We said okay. Our part of the plan was to build a berm about 100 feet long, 15 feet tall, to basically keep the acid mine drainage from entering the river. We did that on our land. It resulted in dramatic improvements in the reduction of acid mine drainage and reduction in fish kills. We were then sued in 1990 by the Committee to Save the Mokelumne. They said that it represented a potential to discharge, the spillway on this berm, into the Mokelumne. We argued that in court and lost. When we lost, we were then ordered by EPA to restore the entire site to the pre-mining condition. So we did that at a cost of $10 million. That was completed in 2000.

The story spread like wildfire throughout California, put a chilling effect on any efforts to clean up abandoned mines and little has happened since then.

Currently, San Francisco Bay is impaired for mercury. So how did all the mercury get there? Well, it came from mining operations, 26 million pounds of mercury was used to extract gold during the Gold Rush days. Eight million pounds of mercury found its way down into the sediment into San Francisco Bay. So you have sediment and you have the continued runoff from the abandoned mines. The total maximum daily load report for San Francisco Bay identified the major sources. Two major sources: sediment and abandoned mines. Publicly-owned treatment works were also a contributor. We contribute, total, all 40 treatment plants in the Bay Area, 17 kilograms out of a total of 1,220 kilograms that find its way into San Francisco Bay every year. We are viewed as a de minimis source.

Nonetheless, the Total Maximum Daily Load report is proposing that we cut back the mercury discharge from treatments by 40% in 20 years. You can do a little bit with pollution prevention. But you can’t make the 40%. So we need some assistance there. What we are faced with is installing costly tertiary treatment facilities at a cost of an estimated $200 million to $300 million per year on the ratepayers, in addition to what they are currently paying in the San Francisco Bay area. Doesn’t it make sense to spend much less than that and get much more bang for the buck by creating a mechanism where you could go in and relieve some liability and do some good by cleaning up abandoned mines? It seems to make sense to me.

Mr. WOOD.  Trout Unlimited has about 160,000 members in 36 States across the Country. We have a long history of engaging in watershed restoration projects that improve fisheries and water quality and otherwise improve watershed health. In fact, each of our more than 400 chapters donates well more than 1,200 hours a year in volunteer service doing stream cleanups, including a number of abandoned coal and hard rock mine projects. Since the creation of the Office of Surface Mining’s Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund in 1977, more than $7.5 billion has been collected from the coal industry to help heal Appalachian and western coal fields. In places such as Kettle Creek watershed of North Central Pennsylvania, our work provides an example of how you can use those resources to both accomplish ecological restoration as well as achieve economic opportunities. In some of the places that we work in that State, thanks in large part to Pennsylvania’s Good Samaritan legislation, which you heard about earlier, coal contributing to acid mine drainage is mined as part of a remediation plan.

From a fisheries and watershed health perspective, issues associated with abandoned gold and silver mines and copper mines are very similar to those of coal mines. The enormity and scope of the abandoned mine problem in the western United States has led to a collective sense of futility which I think you have heard a fair amount about today, that has fostered inactivity in many landscapes.

There are hundreds if not thousands of other cleanups across the west that could be conducted if liability issues and funding issues were addressed. Every commodity developed off public lands has dedicated funding to pay for cleanup associated with production, except for hardrock minerals. Communities and organizations such as ours could get

Ms. SMITH.  More importantly, we don’t believe that the Good Samaritan projects are the real crux of the problem. There are down sides in trying to craft, it is difficult, as you drew out, Mr. Chairman, trying to figure out how craft legislation so you don’t have projects that make mistakes and you don’t weaken liability and stop cleanup at sites like Arrington, Nevada or Kennecott in Utah. The inescapable fact is that there is an enormous universe of abandoned mines, perhaps in the range of half a million total, and neither industry nor Government is spending enough money to make a serious dent in the problem. Money is the single most important barrier to cleanup. Congress needs to appropriate more funds for cleanup. States need to contribute more to cleanup. And the hardrock mining industry needs to follow the approach of their coal mining brethren picking up a share of the cost of cleaning up legacy mining problems.

The other part of the problem is that not all of mining’s problems are in the past. There are many mines, like those in the Copper Basin of Tennessee, that do fit that image of the legacy or historic mine. But there are many more that are far more recent vintage. The west is dotted with abandoned mines that date from the 1980s, not the 1880s, but the 1980s when gold, copper and uranium mining were booming. Too many of those boom projects, once touted as environmental models and economic windfalls, have left large and costly messes. These messes exist today, threats to public health and the environment and drains on the Federal Treasury, because the programs for regulating hard rock mining have failed. There is a desperate need for improvement of mining regulation, for a reasonable and enforceable program to govern disposal of mine waste, for financial assurance rules that actually assure that cleanup funds are available when mining operations cease.

The pressing need is for improved regulation. The pressing need is for scrutiny and controls that recognize that perpetual pollution can occur at facilities like the Zortman Landusky Mine in Montana. The pressing need is for a regulatory system that deals with the vast amount of toxic waste produced by this industry. Now, while the industry is on the crest of a boom.



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One Response to 550,000 abandoned mines, $50 billion to clean up the worst of them

  1. Chester says:

    recently involved in the Aust mining scene, Department of mines is basically broke so the same will happen there. It is an interesting place to fly over, lots and lots of deserted mines. One particular mine I was at had an old pit that was full of an interesting red coloured liquid, a little investigation revealed it was sulphuric acid, pH 2.4 and there was nothing they could do with it. Still I think the biggie will be the condensed nuclear fuels/wastes, at some point in the not too far distant future electrons will disappear then what……