Editor’s note: The American Lands Council, a Utah-based group that supports the transfer of federal public lands in the West to willing states, was asked on Thursday to comment on the study that is the subject of this story. A statement from its board chairman came in too late for initial inclusion, but it has been added to the article.
A new study estimates that there are as many as 100,000 abandoned mines on federal lands in 13 Western states, and that cleaning them up could cost as much as $21 billion.
In Montana, according to an analysis by the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities, the number of abandoned mines on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service is estimated at 4,915. Estimated cleanup costs in Montana range from a low of just under a half-billion dollars to just over $1 billion.
In a press release accompanying the report, study author Jessica Goad, the advocacy director at the Center for Western Priorities, said it should be a “wake-up call” to politicians who think the states can afford to take over management of federal lands.
“Montana alone faces up to a billion dollars in abandoned mine cleanup costs,” she said. “Because states must operate under balanced budgets, should states take over American public lands their taxpayers might have to choose between cleaning up mines, or funding schools and law enforcement.”
In a telephone interview, Goad said she undertook the study in the wake of the Gold King Mine disaster in August, when 3 million gallons of contaminated water flowed into Colorado’s Animas River. The toxic chemicals were released by contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency, which was cleaning up the abandoned mine site.
Some politicians, she said, blamed the spill on “federal overreach,” and a state senator in Utah said the disaster demonstrated why states and local entities would be better managers of land and resources.
Goad said the Center for Western Priorities—which describes itself as a “nonpartisan conservation and advocacy organization” — “wanted to get a sense of the scale of what the abandoned mine problem was.”
One of the early surprises was how little solid information there is on the subject, Goad said. She quotes from a study by the Governmental Accountability Office, which said “there are no definitive estimates of the number of abandoned hardrock mines on federal and other lands.”
However, the GOA did try to quantify the number of abandoned mines on BLM and Forest Service land and came up with the estimate of 99,737 in the 13 Western states.
Goad attached estimated cleanup costs to those numbers by drawing on a report from the Mineral Policy Center (now known as Earthworks), which broke down the cost of remediating abandoned mines according to the extent of contamination.
As Goad said in her report, abandoned mines range from those already reclaimed or considered benign to those of “Superfund” cleanup status. Other gradations are mines that pose some degree of safety hazard or are likely to cause surface water or groundwater contamination.
“But by far the most concerning situation created by abandoned mines is their threat to water resources, namely acid mine drainage—highly acidic wastewater that is toxic to fish and other aquatic species and can pose major threats to human health,” the new study says.
Though the problems posed by abandoned mines have been understood for a long time, the report says, it was not until 2001 that the BLM began requiring mining companies to post a bond before starting operations, to pay for cleanup if the companies went bankrupt.
That means there are tens of thousands of mines abandoned before 2001, and which have no responsible party attached to them. If no company is held responsible for cleaning up a mine, the cost is sometimes borne by the EPA. But if mines are on public lands managed by the Forest Service, BLM or other federal agency, those agencies are on the hook for cleanup and liability.
“Turning hundreds of millions of acres of American public lands over to the states would be one of the most far-reaching changes to land management policy in the history of the U.S.,” the report says. “Policymakers—and the American people—should be fully informed about the consequences of this proposal.”
A spokesman for one of the principal groups working to promote the transfer of federal land in the West to willings states responded by email to the study. Doug Heaton, chairman of the board of the American Lands Council said:
“It is interesting that in the eyes of Center for Western Priorities the problem that existed for 100 years under federal control is suddenly a crisis as we contemplate escaping the devastation of federal mismanagement. It is obvious that Center for Western Priorities is a political operative front group for the extremists who have been blocking responsible management of our Public Lands for decades. They and their incredibly biased ‘report,’ which is nothing but another piece of misleading propaganda, have zero credibility. For example, it was the bungling feds that spilled 3 million gallons of raw toxins into the Animas River and turned it mustard yellow. It was the feds that barred state helicopter crews from putting out Western wildfires before they grew into raging infernos.
“We at American Lands Council are working to bring the neglected federal estate under state and local management so we can have healthy air, water and wildlife, abundant outdoor recreation, and safe vibrant communities. When more efficient management is put into place, and driven by local people who really care about the outcomes, the costs will come under control and the results will be much better.”
Goad said the report was sent to policymakers all over the West and in Washington, D.C.
“There has been more interest recently in reforming abandoned-mine policy,” Goad said. “We’re hoping this report can play a role in informing that debate.”