The dizzying scope of abandoned mine hazards on public lands

As many as 500,000 abandoned mine features litter federal land, many posing environmental or physical safety hazards that especially threaten Native communities.

 

When two Democratic senators killed reforms to the General Mining Law of 1872 this fall, one of the casualties was a fee that would have helped pay for reclaiming abandoned hardrock mines. The proposed charge of 7 cents per ton of material would have raised about $200 million over the next decade — a paltry amount, considering that the cost of simply taking an inventory of the abandoned mines on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands is estimated at more than $650 million, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

There are at least 140,000 abandoned hardrock mine features — such as the tunnels or toxic waste piles associated with mining — on federal lands. And that’s only what’s cataloged; federal officials estimate there may be more than 390,000 additional abandoned mine features on public lands that have yet to be identified.  

During the annual Church Rock Uranium Legacy Remembrance and Action Day Walk, demonstrators gather along the Red Water Pond road in Church Rock, New Mexico, on July 14, 2018. The Cold War-era uranium mine still isn’t cleaned up.

It’s unclear how many billions of dollars it’ll take to clean up this mess. The federal government has historically lacked robust data on hardrock mines overall because few of them incur federal royalties.

But abandoned mines are dangerous: Each poses environmental hazards that range from waste contaminating soil to tunnels perpetually leaking toxins into waterways. Such mines litter the Western U.S., but some of the worst offenders are near Indigenous communities — a tangible example of this country’s environmental racism.

BEFORE ENVIRONMENTAL REFORMS like the Clean Water Act and Superfund law took effect beginning in the 1970s and ‘80s, there was only the General Mining Law of 1872. Still in effect today, the law governs mining of hardrock minerals — like gold, copper, lithium and uranium — on public lands.

Congress passed the law nearly 150 years ago to encourage settlement and development in the West. The law didn’t establish royalties, which could have given Americans financial return for industrial exploitation of their public lands. Nor did it give miners any instructions or regulations concerning how to remediate the damage mining did to the land.

The scars just piled up. Even after the reforms of the late 20th century began requiring miners to clean up after themselves on public land, there was often no responsible party to hold to account. If the mine operator died or the company dissolved, taxpayers inherited the burden.

The government is covering some of the cleanup costs. A group of federal agencies — the BLM, the National Park Service, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency — spent about $2.9 billion on addressing physical safety and environmental hazards at abandoned mines between fiscal years 2008 and 2017. But BLM officials estimate that it could take $4.7 billion to address the nearly 65,000 physical safety hazards just on the lands they administer while addressing hundreds of thousands of additional uncatalogued features; the agencies are currently falling far short.

Staffing is a major barrier, too. Given the BLM’s current staff and budget for abandoned mine work, officials say it could take up to 500 years simply to confirm the presence of safety or environmental hazards, according to a GAO report.

ALL THE PUBLIC LANDS in the United States are the ancestral lands and sometimes the unceded territories of Indigenous nations. Today, many abandoned mines are clustered near Native communities. According to a 2017 paper by University of New Mexico researchers, more than 600,000 Native Americans — about 15% of the Indigenous people in the West — live within approximately 6 miles of an abandoned mine.

For years, for example, the abandoned Formosa Mine in Oregon has leaked millions of gallons of acidic water and toxic metals into waterways near the homeland of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. Because the company that operated the mine had dissolved, under the 1872 Mining Law, U.S. taxpayers were left on the hook for an estimated $12 million in cleanup costs.

Keith Hein, USGS hydrologic technician, carries water-quality samples from the South Fork Salmon River in Idaho. The Stibnite Mining District on ancestral Nez Perce lands has contaminated river water the tribe relies on.

In Idaho, old mines on ancestral Nez Perce lands have degraded water quality in the South Fork Salmon River, a critical lifeway for the tribe. Today, the proposed Stibnite Gold Project would involve developing multiple new open-pit mines on these lands. The tribe stands firmly against this: “Given gold mining’s legacy of dispossession and wanton destruction of our land and resources,” Nez Perce vice chair Shannon Wheeler wrote in 2020, “the Tribe is committed to preventing these harms from ever again revisiting our people.”

Diné people living on the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico fear further uranium mining pollution in the aquifer that supplies their water. Past mining for the radioactive mineral has already caused higher rates of cancer, as well as respiratory and kidney conditions, in this region. Cancer rates on the reservation doubled from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Abandoned mines are just one of myriad environmental injustices affecting Native communities in the U.S. When the BLM tackles abandoned mine cleanup projects, it prioritizes them by addressing the highest-risk sites first; environmental justice is only a tangential concern.

“In terms of uranium mine remediation,” says Eric Jantz, an attorney with the nonprofit New Mexico Environmental Law Center, “the federal government tends to do a lot less for tribes and tribal communities than it does in more Anglo communities.”

Chris Shuey, who studies uranium issues for the Southwest Research and Informational Center in Albuquerque, changes filters on a machine that tests the dust particles in the air near Church Rock Mine, New Mexico.
Gail Fisher/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“The federal government tends to do a lot less for tribes and tribal communities than it does in more Anglo commu-nities.”

A BLM spokesperson says that the projects selected for remediation under its Abandoned Mine Lands program receive “environmental justice analysis” and that “BLM continues to implement relevant executive and secretarial orders on environmental justice.” But on the ground in places like New Mexico, that doesn’t always mean much.

Manuel “Manny” Pino (Acoma Pueblo), a retired sociology professor at the Scottsdale Community College, grew up with uranium mining. Since childhood, he’s witnessed the environmental degradation caused by the mines. When his grandmother died of cancer, his concern escalated. “We had no background of cancerous-related illnesses on that side of the family, and I began to wonder if her illness was correlated with all that uranium development,” Pino said. “As we began to see people dying, we began to wonder: Who’s responsible for this?”

Pino recalled that uranium-related illnesses began appearing first in miners. By the 1970s, however, members of the general public were suffering the same fate. In hindsight, that wasn’t surprising; Pino remembers how the high desert winds would blow radioactive dust everywhere, including onto agricultural areas where pueblo members grew their food.

Although uranium mining has ceased near Acoma, Pino said, the federal government still has to address the effects of legacy pollution by taking care of those who have been affected by it. That includes, he said, expanding the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and making more aggressive cleanup efforts in marginalized communities. Pino mentioned Red Water Pond, a community in the Navajo Nation in New Mexico where a Cold War-era uranium mine still isn’t cleaned up.

“Would it take that long if it was a major municipality where white middle-class people lived?” Pino said. “It’s beyond racism, it’s beyond injustice. It’s genocide, because they knew the problems existed.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan independent watchdog that investigates and exposes waste, corruption and abuse of power.

Cody Nelson is an independent journalist and audio producer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @codyleenelson.

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