Cleanup of Unused Mines Is Urged

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2008

The federal government is "putting the public's health and safety at risk" by not cleaning up safety and contamination hazards at abandoned mines on public land in the West, the Interior Department's inspector general said in a report issued yesterday.

The unusually harsh report by Inspector General Earl E. Devaney, based on visits to 45 areas with abandoned mines and interviews with more than 75 employees of the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, warns that "dangerous levels of environmental contaminants, such as arsenic, lead and mercury" are present on BLM lands that are readily accessible to visitors and local residents. Most of the mines are in California, Nevada and Arizona.

Twelve adults and children died in accidents at abandoned mines between 2004 and 2007, the report said, and "the potential for more deaths and injuries is ominous." In September 2007, 13-year-old Rikki Howard died and her 10-year-old sister was seriously injured when the all-terrain vehicle Rikki was driving plunged more than 120 feet to the bottom of the abandoned Brighter Days Mine near Chloride, Ariz.

The report, which calls on both BLM and the Park Service to overhaul their programs for securing abandoned mines, also suggested that BLM supervisors have tried to cover up the problem. "One employee stated that adding sites to the inventory list and declaring them unsafe was more detrimental to BLM because doing so acknowledged a hazard and a potential liability," the document said.

BLM Director James L. Caswell responded in a July 2 letter to Devaney, challenging the report's assertion that the agency's mine program "has been undermined, neglected and marginalized." Caswell wrote that "I do not believe this finding to be true, or to be substantiated by the report."

Noting that the program has "limited funding" because it cannot draw on federal programs such as the Superfund, Caswell wrote that the agency has focused on protecting water quality in mine areas. He added that "even at those sites critiqued in the audit report, however . . . the BLM has undertaken temporary or interim measures to mitigate health and safety hazards, while seeking additional funding to complete the needed remediations."

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) said yesterday that the audit "paints an abysmal picture." Rahall championed a bill last year that would have established a fund to clean up abandoned mines and forced mining companies to pay royalties comparable to those paid by the coal and oil industries for extracting resources from federal land. The Senate has yet to act on it.

"I have worked for 20 years to reform the Hardrock Mining Law of 1872 to ensure that residents of mining communities are not imperiled by the remnants of these activities," Rahall said. "This report underscores the need to pass meaningful reform of the law before additional tragedies occur."

Velma Smith, manager of the Pew Environment Group's campaign for responsible mining, said in an interview yesterday that the inspector general's report should provide Congress with "a pretty compelling reason to act" on mining reform this year.

"They really can't brush the issue under the rug anymore," Smith said.

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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