Holes Western-style, from a century of mining

  Gold has long been advertised as the "gift that lasts a lifetime." True to the slogan, gold does last a lifetime, as demonstrated by the enduring shine that gold jewelry and coins display even after thousands of years of being buried or lost at sea.

Unfortunately, gold’s shine isn’t the only thing that lasts a lifetime. Waste from the mining of gold and other minerals has plagued generations of Americans throughout the nation, and in particular, in the West. Unlike the gift of gold or silver jewelry, which tends to bring a smile to the face of the recipient, those on the receiving end of mining waste, including plants, fish, animals and man, face depleted supplies of clean water, the ingestion of toxic chemicals, even death.

The impact of mining waste throughout the West is staggering. Colorado alone estimates there are more than 23,000 abandoned mines in the state. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, of the 11,300 abandoned mines located just on Colorado’s national forests, more than 1,500 continue to damage the environment.

Enough mercury seeps from abandoned mines in Oregon that the state health division warns people not to eat fish from 11 bodies of water. Abandoned mines in Oregon are estimated to release 680 to 6,700 pounds of mercury into the environment every year.

More than 100 years of copper mining has polluted 120 miles of the once pristine Clark Fork River in Montana, creating one of the largest Superfund site in the country. In Wyoming’s Yellowstone Park, plant life suffers along a river corridor polluted decades ago by mining.

The list of environmental degradation associated with mine waste seems without end. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that mining waste has contaminated more than 40 percent of the watersheds in the West with a chemical stew of cyanide, mercury, copper, acids, arsenic and lead.

So serious and complex is the problem that the Western Governors' Association passed a resolution last fall urging Congress to adopt a program for the cleanup of abandoned hardrock mines in the West. Legislation introduced by Democratic Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado would do just that. Known as the Abandoned Hardrock Mines Reclamation Act of 2002, the legislation would create a long-term Reclamation Fund contributed to by hardrock mineral producers. The fund would be used to help pay for the cleanup of hazardous waste from abandoned hardrock mines. The legislation would also create a new permit program at the Environmental Protection Agency that would help to reduce the liability associated with cleanup efforts -- liability which has prevented volunteers and mine companies alike from cleaning up abandoned mines.

Unfortunately, Congress and the administration have shown little interest in addressing this critical problem. Similar mine-waste cleanup legislation introduced last year didn’t make it eventhrough the committee process. Interest is also lacking for bipartisan legislation that would help reform the root of the mining-waste problem – the 1872 Mining Law.

The law allows hardrock mining companies to mine public lands for as little as $2.50 an acre and pay no royalty payments to the owners of those lands --American taxpayers. The law has become an open door for fly-by- night mining companies with few assets and little interest in protecting the environment or public health.

The one trait plants, animals, fish and humans have in common is our reliance on clean, fresh water. Water is literally the source of life. Yet throughout the West, battles are already brewing over who and what will be given access to rapidly depleted supplies of clean water. Ironically, the vast majority of the West’s current water supply flows off the forests, which also happen to be where the majority of abandoned mines are located.

The mine-waste problem is not going to go away on its own. It is only going to get worse as operating mines and those long abandoned spew more and more pollutants into the environment. If nothing is done to address the problem, mine waste will continue to pollute precious water resources, now and into the future.

Congress and the administration would be wise to begin to address this problem and help save our remaining water resources and all living things that depend on them. Acting on the Abandoned Hardrock Mines Reclamation Act would be the first step in that direction. Reforming the antiquated 1872 Mining Law would be the second.

Mike Dombeck is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (www.hcn.org). He is former chief of the Forest Service and was acting director of the Bureau of Land Management. He is now a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.