Feb 21, 2019

Investigation Explores Impact of Nationwide Mining Pollution

The investigation found that more than 50 million gal of contaminated wastewater flows from U.S. mines every day

Investigation explores mining pollution and its impact on drinking water
Investigation explores mining pollution and its impact on drinking water

A new investigation found that at average flows more than 50 million gal of contaminated wastewater flows from U.S. mining sites untreated into surrounding water bodies daily. The Associated Press investigation examined 43 mining sites under federal oversight, with some containing dozens or hundreds of individual mines.

According to The Associated Press, the mining pollution often contaminates water with arsenic, lead and other toxic metals. The pollution is a legacy from how the mining industry was previously allowed to operate, where companies searching for silver, lead, gold and other minerals could abandon a mine after closing it. Now, many former mining sites are federal Superfund sites, requiring costly long-term cleanup projects. For many mines, cleanup efforts continue for decades after they enter the Superfund program.

The investigation also found mining sites that threaten drinking water quality in North and South Carolina, Vermont, Missouri and Oregon. In Rimini, Mont., approximately 30 households cannot drinking their tap water due to groundwater pollution from approximately 150 abandoned gold, lead and copper mines that operated from the 1870s to 1953. While the area was added to the Superfund list in 1999, polluted water still leaks from the mines.

“The fact that bottled water is provided is great,” said Catherine Maynard, a natural resources analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Where it falls short is it’s not piped into our home. Water that’s piped into our home is still contaminated water. Washing dishes and bathing — that metal-laden water is still running through our pipes.”

Estimates for the number of abandoned mine sites are 161,000 for the 12 western states and as many as 500,000 nationwide. According to the Government Accountability Office, at least 33,000 abandoned mine sites have harmed the environment.

“We have been trying to play a very careful game of prioritization,” said Dana Stalcup, deputy director of the Superfund program. “We know the Superfund program is not the answer to the hundreds of thousands of mines out there, but the mines we are working on we want to do them the best we can.”

Debate continues to follow the topic of who in fact should pay for the mining pollution. To date, the U.S. EPA has spent approximately $4 billion on mining cleanup projects. Some Democrats have advocated for a special cleanup fund for old hardrock mine sites funded by the mining industry, reported The Associated Press.

“When something gets on a Superfund site, that doesn’t mean it instantly and magically gets cleaned up,” said Earthjustice Attorney Amanda Goodin. “Having money immediately available from a responsible party would be a game changer.”