Stuck with a $2.6 billion cleanup tab over a nine-year period, the federal government wants the hardrock mining industry to start posting money upfront so taxpayers don't have to foot the bill.
The Environmental Protection Agency wants to propose the rule by 2011 for companies that mine and process gold, copper, lead and other metals because of the widespread nature of the pollutants released and the extent of environmental damage that results.
In proposing the rule, the agency asserts that such mining operations have polluted 3,400 miles of streams and 440,000 acres of land. Annually, the EPA said, the facilities generate 1 billion to 2 billion tons of waste, and large-scale operations often contaminate groundwater, surface water and compromise wildlife, vegetation, soils and wetlands.
"The severity of consequences posed by hardrock mining facilities is evident in the enormous costs" associated with actions necessary to protect public health and the environment, the agency said.
Such toxins, detailed in the EPA's notice of action, include arsenic, cyanide and mercury.
The remediation of contaminated sites is not only costly in dollars and in time but complicated by a pattern of failed operations that result in the taxpayer picking up the tab.
In Moab, an ore mining operation went bankrupt in the mid-1980s, and decades later, the federal government is spending $1 billion to remove 16 million tons of radiation-contaminated tailings.
The report points to multiple cases of shuttered operations in which the EPA and other federal agencies were left to cover cleanup costs, including $192 million it shelled out for a Colorado mine that went belly up in 1992.
Additionally, cleanup efforts are often frustrated by the complexity of ownership, with one report noting that six of the top 10 mining-claim owners in the country are multinational corporations with headquarters elsewhere.
Such ownership, the EPA said, poses difficulty in making the operators take responsibility for cleaning up contaminated sites.
The proposed rule comes after a February federal court ruling in which the federal agency was directed to identify the industries that can use a loophole in the law to skirt financial responsibility for environmental cleanup costs.
Justices ruled on the issue after a suit was brought by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups. In the ruling, justices noted that the EPA acknowledged the potential effectiveness of requiring a bond or other financial guarantee upfront, but lacked the resources to implement the program.
A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, for example, found that as of 2004, Utah had 167 smaller hardrock mining operations in which 50 percent to 74 percent were operating without financial assurances. Of the state's 49 larger operations, up to 24 percent lacked bonds or other assurances for cleanup costs.