A new Associated Press report has blown the lid off the mining industry’s toxic effect across the United States, revealing that over tens of millions of gallons of contaminated water tainted by arsenic, lead and other dangerous metals are flowing into lakes, streams and other drinking water sources on a daily basis.
The report reveals the horrific cost the public has been forced to bear for private corporations’ pursuit of raw material wealth, specifically in terms of the cost of the disposal of toxic waste – a responsibility that has been ignored by wide swathes of the mining industry. The mining industry has instead allowed such toxins and contamination to flow unimpeded into precious water sources in states like California, Colorado, Montana and Oklahoma.
Companies that mined for gold, silver, lead and other minerals were given free license to strip the earth in search of these raw materials. Once the mining projects failed to yield further profits, the companies were allowed to relocate to previously unutilized areas with no regard for the toxic waste they left behind.
In effect, these companies were externalizing the costs of mining to taxpayers — who unknowingly footed the bill for the clean-up – or to future generations who are now forced to suffer the health consequences and ecological damage resulting from the unwillingness of companies to pay for the cost of toxic disposal and the detoxification of former sites.
The AP investigation entailed looking at public data and research on 43 mining sites under federal oversight, including complexes that included anywhere from dozens to hundreds of mines.
On average, over 50 million gallons (189 million liters) of contaminated wastewater has been flowing from the sites on a daily basis.
Oftentimes, the untreated wastewater trickles or flows into nearby ponds, rivers, soil and groundwater, comprising about 20-million gallons (76 million liters) of polluted water that could fill over 2,000 tanker trucks, according to the report.
The remaining water which is actually treated comes at a great cost to taxpayers, who will likely be forced to capture the waste or treat polluted streams for thousands of years, if not indefinitely, long after the mining firms have profited from ruining the environment.
In many cases, the pollution has persisted despite these sites being listed as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund cleanup sites – among the country’s most hazardous, which have been frequently linked to cancer, birth defects, and rare, deadly diseases.
The Superfund program has seen sharp cutbacks under the Trump administration, which has installed EPA administrators like Scott Pruitt and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler who have been close to such major polluters as the big banking, oil, and agriculture industries.
An example of such sites suffering extreme groundwater pollution is the town of Rimini, which lies just outside of Helena, Montana’s capital, where 150 gold, lead and copper mines operated from the 1870s until 1953.
The community was added to the Superfunds list in 1999, allowing the EPA to replace contaminated soil in yards and deliver bottled water for a decade. However, the community is still piping-in tap water that’s contaminated with the metals, forcing them to wash their clothes, dishes and bathe in toxic wastewater.
Many of the polluted sites across the country are simply beyond the pale of recoverability, such as Northern California’s Iron Mountain Mine, east Oklahoma’s Tar Creek, and Colorado’s San Juan Mountains — the site of the catastrophic Gold King Mine blowout of 2015.
The AP report notes:
“Estimates of the number of such abandoned mine sites range from 161,000 in 12 western states to as many as 500,000 nationwide. At least 33,000 have degraded the environment, according to the Government Accountability Office, and thousands more are discovered every year.
Officials have yet to complete work including basic risk analyses on about 80 percent of abandoned mining sites on federal lands. Most are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, which under Trump is seeking to consolidate mine cleanups with another program and cut their combined 2019 spending from $35 million to $13 million.”
It remains unclear whether the U.S. government will ever have the political will to deal with the toxic legacy of the U.S. mining industry, especially given that the rules governing pollution and runoff from mining sites come from the antiquated 1872 Mining Act.
In the meantime, efforts by Democrats to force the mining industry to foot the bill for a special cleanup fund for old hardrock mining sites have faced concerted resistance from the industry and their Republican allies in Congress.
Montana Mining Association director Tammy Johnson unrepentantly told the AP:
“Back in the day there really wasn’t a lot known about acid mine drainage … I just don’t think that today’s companies bear the responsibility.”
The Trump administration has also bent over backwards to protect the polluters, halting a proposed 2017 EPA rule that would force mining firms to post cleanup bonds or otherwise pay for the cleanup rather than push the costs onto taxpayers. Environmental groups are suing to ensure that the EPA rule is revived, and will appear in federal court next month.
It remains clear that someone has to pay for what will amount to a vast clean-up campaign and campaign for the renewal of land that is effectively being destroyed on a daily basis. But who will that “someone” be – the taxpayers and residents living in the effected land, or the mining industry who perpetrated the widespread pollution of the land and tainting of the water?
And the question also remains about whether business as usual – the sacking of the land for private gain – will be allowed to proceed, even if the cost from a massive cleanup comes out of taxpayer pockets or industry profits.