After the gold rush

  • Abandoned mine works in Colorado

    Christopher McLeod photo
  • Ray Brown, L, and Mike Amacher stand near partially relcaimed McLaren Mine

    Ray Ring
  • Stakes mark what used to be edge of Killing Zone below McLaren Mine

    Ray Ring

Note: see the end of this feature story for a list of several accompanying sidebar articles.


The landmarks here are about what you'd find in many of the other hundreds of thousands of abandoned or inactive mines in the West. Old pits, collapsed tunnels and piles of waste rock cling to the mountainside around treeline. All the exposed, crushed rock glows with an orange hue. Seeps and several streams are so polluted that for a ways downhill they flow orange, too.

Ray Brown, standing on a pile of waste rock that's about 20 feet tall at one of the district's primary old mine sites, the McLaren Mine, says, "We call this Hot Hill." He's referring to the mix of acid and heavy metals left over in the crushed rock - exotics such as cadmium and everyday stuff like copper and iron that are dangerous when concentrated like this. In effect, the hill burns up anything that tries to live on it.

He points downslope, where seeps from Hot Hill extend the corrosive action through a stand of low, grasslike sedges and other lush greenery. Plants grow right to the water's edge, but wherever the water touches, nothing grows. "We call that the "killing zone."

Mined on and off from the 1860s to the 1950s, the district feels ghostly, on the verge of being forgotten. Brown, who works for the Forest Service and is a leading researcher of how to restore life to places like this, has been toiling here for 26 consecutive summers, mostly by himself. "I used to come up here and not see another person."

But last summer more than a hundred other scientists and policy-makers from around the nation joined Brown, swarming all over these old diggings. On the day in August when he hosted this reporter, for example, one group of scientists knelt down and measured tiny plants that were growing near Hot Hill. Another group measured erosion to the fraction of a centimeter. A third group used a drilling rig to inject tracers into the mountain and a fourth scooped up water samples, trying to chart the flow of pollution.

"Now the place gets so busy," Brown chuckled, "driving around up here, I have to use my turn signal."

What's put everyone into motion is politics. These are the West's most famous funky old diggings, occupying a ridge in a national forest above Yellowstone National Park. To keep mining from reawakening here with potentially increased impacts on the park and other wild land, a high-powered eco-deal has been worked out, involving grassroots environmentalists, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, mining executives, and Congress, with President Bill Clinton occasionally hovering overhead in a helicopter. The federal government is tapping a conservation fund to pay mine owners up to $42.5 million not to mine here, and reclamationists up to $22.5 million to clean up the old diggings.

The reclamation isn't merely a side effect. And as extreme as it all seems, it is not unique. Just about everything going on here is also taking shape at many other old, but not forgotten, diggings.

The monkey on mining's back

It's about time. From the pick-and-shovel mineral rushes of the 1800s onward, most hardrock was dug with no attempt at reclamation. Thanks to lack of awareness and lack of regulation (which included the 1872 Mining Law), the old diggings were merely left where they were as the ore played out or as changing markets made mining unfeasible.

"It was a developing country," says Chris Pfahl, an ASARCO Inc. reclamation manager in Idaho. "The public's attitude at that time was, "We want cheap metals and we don't care if the environment is trashed." The consumers benefited."

Today, no one can say how many abandoned or inactive hardrock mines there are, where they all are or what they consist of; they range from small potholes in the Arizona backcountry to Butte's complex of pits and 10,000 miles of shafts, stopes and adits - in layman's terms, tunnels.

The remains pose a huge public-relations problem for the industry. No matter how much progress is made in the technology of mining with fewer impacts, the overall perception of the industry is shaped by the many ruined landscapes lingering from the past.

The remains also pose risks. Gaping holes and precarious ground could swallow any passerby. Nevada alone, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal, has an estimated 50,000 abandoned mines, yet only 7,000 have been accurately surveyed and only 4,500 "barricaded and secured."

Most of all, there are the complex risks of pollution.

Metals and acid from abandoned and inactive mines concentrate in an estimated 70 billion tons of old tailings and waste piles around the West. They fly around on winds that sweep the waste piles. Liberated by erosion and acid drainage, they sink into groundwater and flow in seeps and streams, settling downstream in sediment, with wider long-term impacts on species and ecosystems.

As many as 12,000 miles of streams and rivers are harmed by metals and acid drainage; in states such as Colorado, the old diggings are the primary cause of river and stream pollution. Reclaiming all the abandoned mines in the West, according to the Western Governors' Association, will cost $3 billion or more.

That's if we can figure out how to do it, and who will pay.

Fractured oversight

Not until the 1970s did environmental laws and an awareness of responsibility within the industry lead to some progress on reclamation. But that's mostly been with active mines. If you propose a new mine, typically you have to post a bond to cover some reclamation in the future. The 1872 Mining Law, which governs hardrock mining on federal land, has no environmental regulations, so what bonding is required is determined by state law or Bureau of Land Management regulations.

For the old mines, reclamation has concentrated on coal, probably because a lot of coal was dug in the East, under the noses of the nation's regulators. By federal law since 1977, coal mine owners have paid fees that are used primarily to reclaim old coal mines.

There is still no cohesive federal law managing reclamation of the old hardrock mines (where gold, silver, copper, etc. were dug). Without a federal law, states tend to be in charge, for better or worse. Federal Superfund, the Clean Water Act, and other federal and state laws and programs are stretched to cover some old mines, but there are gray areas, plenty of cracks to fall through, lots of habitat for lawyers. The regulatory framework is as fractured as the rock.

An abandoned hardrock mine in Montana might be put on a waiting list for reclamation through federal Superfund or the state's mini Superfund. Or it might be put on the waiting list of the state's Abandoned Mines Reclamation program, but only if it meets certain requirements, including abandonment before 1977. (Mines abandoned after 1977 fall through this crack.) The program is funded by the coal reclamation fees - as states make progress on their old coal mines, the coal mining companies keep paying anyway and the extra money goes to hardrock reclamation - regardless of the fairness of that.

Thanks to Montana's coal mines, the state has one of the most active programs reclaiming old hardrock mines. Beginning in 1980, the state's mine waste bureau reviewed historical records, surveyed the mountains with spy planes and placed ads in newspapers, asking people to report old diggings they came across. So Montana now has a database on 6,000 abandoned mines, with information on acres disturbed, shafts and other hazards.

But Montana's program amounts to only $3.5 million a year, which covers the overhead on the state's bureaucracy and reclaims two or three old diggings annually, a tiny fraction of the total.

In states such as Arizona and Nevada, there are no coal mines to pay for reclamation of thousands of abandoned hardrock mines. The exception there is, some Indian reservations in those states have coal and thus have their own reclamation programs.

Fractured science

Pretty much everyone agrees that a crisis exists. The industry and political associations, federal and state agencies, and the squeaky wheels of mining reform within the environmental movement have been conducting a dialogue over the past few years, piling up studies and joint initiatives and trading drafts of possible new policies and programs. The Bureau of Reclamation, which has spent most of its life pouring concrete for dams, is even getting into reclamation - mine reclamation, that is.

The Western Governors' Association, with the National Mining Association and nine companies that put up nearly a half million dollars, recently vowed to find all the abandoned hardrock mines in states that aren't as far along as Montana. "With the West's population growth," says Chris McKinnon of the governors' association, "more people are coming into contact with the old diggings, and that creates a sense of urgency."

Everyone is playing such a game of catch-up that even the basic vocabulary will have to be defined. Reclamation can mean merely shoving the rock and dirt back into the holes, or it can mean also coaxing some grass to grow, or also installing liners and plugs on pollution sources, or any of the progressively more difficult treatments up to re-establishing whole ecosystems.

The nature of hardrock deserves some blame. The mineral deposits, formed where volcanic heat rose close to the surface, tend to contain an Addams Family of heavy metals and sulfur compounds. Even without human disturbance, the natural processes - such as ice grinding during glacial ages, and action by rain, snowmelt, surface and underground streams - erode and dissolve the mineral deposits, releasing sulfuric acid and metals. Native communities of bacteria accelerate such natural pollution.

In some mining districts, streams weren't all that pure before a shovel was turned. There are a lot of mountains named Red Mountain that rusted naturally to that color.

"That's how people found the ore bodies back in the 1860s - they followed the red water upstream; it was red from the natural acid drainage," says Dan McLaughlin, vice president of Crown Butte Mines Inc., which proposed the new mine in the New World District.

As the rock is mined, though, it gets thoroughly crushed and more of its surface is exposed, so its contact with water and bacteria greatly increases. The result: More acid and metals are released, turning streams day-glo colors that range from lemon yellow and orange to emerald green and dead white. The study of such interactions has relatively low priority, and is dispersed among hydrologists, engineers and narrower specialties such as hydrogeochemistry and geomicrobiology.

"We're all ignorant on this," says Kirk Nordstrom, a researcher of acid mine pollution for the U.S. Geological Survey. "These are very complex issues. Even people within the agencies with regulatory responsibility don't know much about it."

In the New World District, when Crown Butte Mines (backed by the multinational Noranda) got the idea of operating a new gold mine in the 1980s, there were old claims that belonged to about 20 private owners and the U.S. Forest Service. The company bought in, consolidated much but not all of the acreage, and sank perhaps a half-million dollars into the beginnings of reclamation of the old mines - and getting ready to conduct exploration. As environmental groups and government got involved, the government spent another half million on reclaiming portions of the old mines.

Bulldozers have contoured the slopes to look better than they did when the last round of mining ended. Orange ponds, haul roads and precarious shaft openings have been graded; 250,000 tons of old tailings that were draining into a creek that flows into Yellowstone Park have been stabilized somewhat. Brown, the Forest Service plant physiologist, and his team have made a breakthrough on revegetation (see story page 9). Yet acid and metals drainage continues; the "killing zone" is still expanding.

Fisher Creek, for example, has its headwaters in the diggings, flowing six miles down to its confluence with another creek. For its entire length, it's so acidic and full of metals that it supports no fish life and almost no bugs. Hydrologists who have studied the creek can't agree on whether fish could have lived in it before mining began. But now that the mountain has been hollowed out, dark orange water drains from the primary adit directly into the headwaters of the creek, delivering 1,000 times as much copper as fish can tolerate.

Plants grow on portions of the restyled old mine, but not on all of it, and fish will never have a chance until such manmade water pollution is reduced or stopped altogether.

Primitive technology

Acid mine drainage is formed by the interaction of the rock with air and water, and it can be stopped by removing one of the three. The typical reclamation strategy is to try to keep the mined rock completely dry (no water) or completely wet (no air), at least until the next glacier comes along and stirs everything up again.

A model of pragmatism, Montana's mine waste bureau has its method down, spending about $700,000 per job, targeting what's cost efficient and doable. Sometimes it isn't pretty. With dozers and other massive equipment, the state rumbles into an old mine site and makes a pile of the waste rock and tailings - if necessary scooping out a resting place for the pile and installing a liner. Then the pile is capped, so water can't get to it. Or make that, so the water probably can't get to it in the near future. The liners and caps - combinations of clay and plastic sheeting - might eventually leak from aging or from stresses, such as earthquakes or lesser geologic shifting. Groundwater and runoff might find a way in.

"No matter how well you do it, periodically you're going to have to come back and maintain it," says Lee Rozaklis, a Boulder, Colo., hydrologist who studied the New World District for environmental groups. "Engineers are incredibly naive from a long-term perspective."

It gets even trickier with mountains that have been hollowed out, as is the case in New World. Seeps and springs disappear into such mines, and the mines collect other groundwater. Typically one or more adits at the mine's low points work like bathtub drains - draining the water into a creek. The water is hot with pollution and must be treated or the drain plugged.

Plugs tend to be the first choice, because they're cheap and easy, but they can fail spectacularly. As a mine fills with water behind a plug, pressure builds and the water tries to vent, forcing new polluted seeps and springs all over the mountainside or even blowing out the plug, roaring a flood of pollution down the watershed.

At the Eagle Mine in Colorado, the mine was plugged in the 1980s and the plugs held - -even through an earthquake," says Gene Taylor of the Denver EPA. While the plugs kept approximately 700 million gallons back in the mountain, Taylor says, "it was water finding its way along a fault line that dumped pollution into Rock Creek and then into the Eagle River." Now, due to collecting and treating both the mine seeps and the groundwater, the levels of metals in the river have diminished dramatically and fish are returning, he says.

The science of reclamation is to try something, and if that doesn't work, try something else. Mostly it comes down to primitive methods of sweeping up the mess, capping and plugging, and crossing your fingers.

Edging toward fairness or off a cliff?

Really, "There is no such thing as an abandoned mine," says Vic Andersen, chief of Montana's mine waste cleanup bureau. "There's always somebody responsible" for cleaning up an old mess, whether it be a multinational mining company or "just some little old lady in a rest home who inherited the mine from her grandfather." Even unpatented claims on public land are owned, by the U.S. Forest Service or some other land-management agency.

Most mines that are called "abandoned" are merely "inactive' - on hold until they can again be mined profitably. Often it's difficult to determine who is responsible, though. Ownership of a single mine can be shared between companies that went bankrupt and companies that were swallowed by mergers and companies that survived, as well as by individuals near and far and the faceless government landlords.

Following the paper trail can be exhausting. As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, "In an unusually sweeping order, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has demanded that 71 Idaho mining companies unearth every scrap of paper they have produced in the last 117 years, from recent faxes and phone messages to notes scribbled as far back as 1880. The EPA says it needs the information to determine who is responsible for polluting the panhandle's Silver Valley."

Everyone talks about fairness, but there are also different definitions of fairness.

Connecting any miner today with a miner a hundred years ago can strain logic. The usually unspoken opinion of many environmentalists and government agencies has been: If a mining company didn't make the old mess here, well, it probably made a different old mess somewhere else. So environmentalists and the government have tried to load the old diggings on the back of any company in sight.

They get the chance as the industry cycles and technology improves, so that periodically companies want to re-enter historical mining districts, to establish new mines or to "remine" old tailings and waste rock. Under strict enforcement of the Clean Water Act, as soon as a company buys into an old mine, the company owns all the pollution from any historical mining and can be made to pay for total cleanup.

That's partly what happened in New World. When Crown Butte Mines arrived, environmental groups trying to protect the park's habitat - the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and others - sued the company in federal court. In 1995, a federal judge agreed that partly because of the mess of the old diggings, the company was violating the Clean Water Act. The fine and cost of cleanup could have run well into the millions, further adding to the company's overhead, and it helped pressure the company into the buyout approved by Congress last November.

The case had repercussions around the West, intended and unintended. Companies have become hesitant to remine or have anything else to do with old diggings. "It discourages new enterprises," says Chris Hayes, a Colorado attorney who works on reclamation issues. It also reduces one of the few sources of money, because companies engaged in re-entry and remining had paid for some reclamation of old diggings.

There are other ways that strict enforcement can haunt those who want reclamation. Just as a company can be held liable, so can a government agency: If an agency attempts to reclaim an old mine, if the water quality isn't improved enough to meet the standards of the law, the agency can be sued and forced to pay for more reclamation. So, as Andersen of Montana's waste cleanup bureau says, "The state has hesitated to try to clean up some mines," especially mines where acid drainage will be nearly impossible to remedy completely.

"We have to think creatively," says the Denver EPA's Carol Russell. "We want cleanups and fairness."

Recent attempts to reform the 1872 Mining Law have tried to establish both. The reforms would parallel the coal reclamation law, imposing royalties and fees on hardrock mining, with as much as half the money going to reclaim "abandoned" hardrock mines.

According to projections, such reform would raise $12 million a year, possibly $25 million a year, for hardrock reclamation - but that isn't much to work with, says Dave Chambers, who runs the Center for Science and Public Participation in Montana, consulting with nonprofits and tribal groups. "What you'd like to see is $250 million a year, and even that wouldn't go all that far."

Congress may or may not agree on royalties for reclamation, but there's wide agreement among regulators, the mining industry and some environmental groups that regulation needs to be relaxed a bit. They want to allow incremental cleanups instead of all or nothing.

Relaxation of the Clean Water Act, for example, would allow the Montana waste bureau to take control of pollution that's flowing into a creek and merely redirect it down a trench of cleansing lime - cheap, easy and far from perfect - without the bureau becoming liable for pollution it didn't cause. Reportedly, to allow such imperfection, a "Good Samaritan amendment" to the water law will be introduced in Congress any day, backed by players across the board. "The amendment will allow us to fiddle with the discharges to reduce them," Andersen says, "but not necessarily meet the full provisions of the Clean Water Act."

Among the other policy experiments, Montana has established a procedure for cutting deals on the cost of reclamation. If two companies operated an old mine, but one company went out of business, the surviving company pays only half the bill, and the other half comes from an "Orphan Share Fund."

Describing one deal, concerning an old mill site in Helena that was contaminated with arsenic and lead, Carol Fox of Montana's Department of Environmental Quality says, "A defunct mining company had built the mill and left the tailings. Now Burlington Northern Railroad is the majority owner. We decided (Burlington Northern) was 27.5 percent responsible. How? We came in with a number, the company came in with a different number, then we negotiated."

Other local experiments in Montana and Colorado add up the impact of old mines watershed by watershed, targeting the worst mines and ignoring the rest, trying for local consensus and relaxing various regulations for incremental cleanups (see story opposite page). The biggest regulator, the EPA, is even calling for more negotiations and deals, encouragement of remining and other "cost effective reductions' of pollution that won't be perfect.

Desperation has put the experiments into motion. Progress is small and uncertain. Montana's orphans, for example, are funded only temporarily, by existing fees and taxes on hardrock mines. "The funding is woefully inadequate. There's about $1 million in the orphan fund but, according to industry and state estimates, $30 million to $50 million is needed," says Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center. "Even that funding is up in the air - very short term." Other states don't even have such fees and taxes to experiment with.

In certain cases, the federal government simply bites the bullet and pays for the reclamation of old mines; in the New World District, the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund is being tapped - another irony, since that money comes from fees on offshore oil and gas leases, not mining. At many other mines, for now, no one can be found to foot the bill.

With the lack of knowledge and money, an era of environmental pragmatism seems to be dawning on all the old diggings. Some environmentalists go along with it, some don't.

Because the law is so skewed toward the industry, says Jim Jensen of the Montana Environmental Information Center, "We're not willing to relax anything. If we keep the crossbar high, we force the companies to come up with new (reclamation) technology." That's important, Jensen says, because "government doesn't even have the money to do the research and development that's needed for reclamation."

"I'm a member of environmental groups, but sometimes they're the biggest problem," says Bill Simon, a watershed coordinator for a pilot project in Colorado. "They tend to be uncompromising. They want to do 100 percent cleanup, but we don't have that technology. In many cases, it's irrelevant who caused the problem to begin with."

Former HCN senior editor Ray Ring writes from Bozeman, Montana.


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