By Jay Landers

The U.S. Senate has passed bipartisan legislation aiming to improve the federal response to threats associated with abandoned hardrock mining sites. If left unaddressed, these sites can pose threats to physical safety and contribute significantly to environmental contamination, particularly in the American West, where they are most prevalent.

The full extent of abandoned hardrock mining sites in the U.S. is unknown, though previous estimates have indicated that such sites probably number in the hundreds of thousands. For example, a March 2020 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that four federal agencies had identified at least 140,000 abandoned hardrock mine features on land under their jurisdictions. The same report noted that the agencies also estimated that another 390,000 abandoned hardrock mine features could exist on federal lands but are not yet included in their databases.

Making a list

Introduced on Feb. 29 by Sens. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., the Legacy Mine Cleanup Act (S. 3858) would codify within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency an office that Donald Trump’s administration created more than three years ago.

In September 2020, the EPA announced the formation of its Office of Mountains, Deserts, and Plains, to be in Lakewood, Colorado. The newest of the EPA’s four offices having geographic focuses, this office was tasked with overseeing federal efforts to address the deleterious environmental effects of hardrock mining in the American West.

Among its provisions, the Legacy Mine Cleanup Act would direct the Office of Mountains, Deserts, and Plains to coordinate with the EPA’s headquarters, the agency’s regional offices, other federal agencies, and stakeholders any response actions at covered mine sites. The legislation defines a “covered mine site” as the “land, water, and surrounding watersheds where extraction, beneficiation, or processing of hardrock ores or minerals occurred, but has been discontinued, including discontinued temporarily,” according to the text of the bill.

Any such interagency efforts to coordinate response actions would be required to give priority to “covered mine sites for which there is no potentially responsible party,” the bill states.

Under S. 3858, the EPA would be required to prepare annually a “priority mine list” of covered mine sites needing response actions. To be sent to various congressional committees, the list would describe the methodology used by the EPA to identify the sites and indicate the status of response actions pertaining to the sites.

Promoting best practices

Another key purpose of the Office of Mountains, Deserts, and Plains would be to “establish and disseminate best practices for covered mine site response actions,” the bill notes. Such practices would include “innovative technologies and reuse approaches that support and make progress toward those response actions” and “waste storage and disposal solutions,” according to S. 3858.

Similarly, the office would be tasked with establishing “best practices to protect and improve human health and the environment and implement appropriate reuse options, including through the use of innovative technologies to recover valuable resources from covered mine site features or areas, as applicable,” the bill states.

More broadly, the EPA would be required to “identify best practices for developing, reviewing, and approving site assessments, remedial investigations, and feasibility studies for covered mine sites,” according to the legislation.

S. 3858 would also direct the EPA to develop a 10-year interagency plan to coordinate federal, state, and tribal efforts to address abandoned uranium mine sites within the Navajo Nation.

Accelerating cleanups

On March 12, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which Kelly and Lummis serve on, approved S. 3858 by voice vote. On April 15, the Senate passed the bill by voice vote.

Taken together, the various provisions of S. 3858 requiring greater coordination and focus on efforts to address hardrock mining contamination will go a long way toward improving environmental outcomes in the American West, Kelly said in a March 5 news release announcing the introduction of the legislation.

“Abandoned hardrock mines pose serious environmental and public health threats to Arizona communities and tribal nations, but the cleanup of these hazardous sites is too often delayed,” Kelly said. “By cutting red tape, creating greater accountability, and improving the coordination of local, state, and federal partners, our bill will accelerate the cleanup of abandoned mines.”

For her part, Lummis heralded the legislation as a means of facilitating more nuanced approaches to the intractable problems associated with hardrock mining contamination. “In order to preserve Wyoming and the West’s iconic landscapes, we need to abandon the federal government’s one-size-fits-all approach and adopt region-specific solutions to preserve our Western way of life,” Lummis said in the release. “I am proud to partner with Sen. Kelly to codify the Trump administration’s Office of Mountains, Deserts, and Plains to forge relationships with states, tribes, and localities to better support our unique ecosystems.”

The bipartisan bill has received support from the state of Arizona as well as certain conservation and environmental organizations.

“While mining is integral to the global economy, long-abandoned hardrock mines that predate modern regulations leave a legacy of environmental harm and public health and safety dangers,” said Karen Peters, the CEO and director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, in the release. “In Arizona alone, there are an estimated 100,000 abandoned mine features scarring the landscape. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has remediated many abandoned mines, but given the scope, we cannot solve the problem alone.

“This legislation broadens our ability to collaborate with federal agencies, industry, nonprofits, and others to protect the residents of Arizona and the environment from the impacts of these old mines.”

Other interested parties weighed in.

“Abandoned mines, some dating back to the 19th century, continue to drain toxic heavy metals into our waterways, and existing law makes it extremely difficult to clean them up,” said Becky Humphries, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, in the release. “We applaud the introduction of the Legacy Mine Cleanup Act 2024, which would authorize the Office of Mountains, Deserts, and Plains at the Environmental Protection Agency to help clean up abandoned hardrock mines and improve water quality – benefiting both communities’ water supplies, as well as fish and wildlife populations.”

Added Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, in the release: “Abandoned hardrock mines are the largest source of water pollution in the Western United States. The Legacy Mine Cleanup Act 2024 will facilitate cleanup of these mines and leverage the expertise and resources of state and federal agencies, tribal nations, and good Samaritans such as Trout Unlimited.”

The bill also enjoys support within some politically conservative circles. For example, a representative of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation expressed approval for S. 3858 in a March 11 news release issued by Lummis’ office. “Advancing the Office of Mountains, Deserts, and Plains is a step in the right direction whereby EPA is closer to the people they serve and are most impacted by their decisions,” said Mandy Gunasekara, a visiting fellow for the Center for Energy, Climate, and Environment at the Heritage Foundation and the EPA’s chief of staff during the Trump administration. “I applaud Sen. Lummis for her leadership in addressing legacy pollution in a responsible way.”

This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.