On the heels of the disaster which caused 3 million gallons of toxic waste to spill into the Animas River in Colorado earlier this month, conservationists are rightly freaking out about the likelihood of similar problems in the future. According to information from the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO), contamination of western waters is much more pervasive than most people realize, with some 30,000 leaky mines scattered across the landscape like time bombs. If the Environmental Protection Agency, which caused the Animas River spill, can’t be trusted to safeguard our waterways, who can?
Some of the investigations into the Gold King Mine spill at the Animas River tell us that the EPA failed to perform certain safety tests prior to using heavy machinery to, ironically, investigate pollutants coming from the mine. With the agency coming under such heavy scrutiny, concern grows over the well-being of other waterways. In Colorado alone, the state Department of Public Health and Environment reported that 230 old mines have polluted 1,645 miles of rivers and streams. Elsewhere, the EPA has estimated that 40 percent of western watersheds are contaminated by mine drainage.
Leaky mines are everywhere. A 2011 report from the federal GAO identified at least 161,000 abandoned hardrock mine sites across 13 western states (including Alaska). Of those, more than 33,000 are linked to environmental problems like contaminated surface and ground water. This bad news gets even worse when you learn that the EPA estimated that those 161,000 mining sites have at least 332,000 features – which is an average of more than two per site – and that raises the environmental dangers dramatically. Disused mines become unstable over time as structures decay, and a collapse can easily leak toxic waste into the surrounding environment, especially when workers don’t follow safety protocols.
The prognosis is a bit daunting. Cleaning up the hazardous mine sites is possible, but costly. Earthworks Action estimates it will cost upwards of $72 billion to clean up all of the mine sites listed in the GAO and EPA reports. Because most of the mine owners are long gone, taxpayers will wind up footing most of that bill, and the clean up process will likely take decades.