The repair of nearly 300,000 federal acres in 11 Western states that were damaged by hard-rock mining would cost $284 million, a congressional study shows.
The study indicates federal agencies are not enforcing reclamation laws that apply to hard-rock mining operations, said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., who requested the General Accounting Office study."The findings of this report are especially important because they prove something that has been suspected all along: Federal agencies such as the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) do not adequately enforce the few hard-rock mining reclamation requirements that are in place," said Rahall, chairman of a House subcommittee on mining and natural resources.
"In fact, they often do not even know whether mining is occurring on lands under their jurisdiction," he said. "The results of this investigation certainly don't point to the good stewardship of our public domain."
The study examined a sample of mining sites that were active between October 1976 and December 1986 in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.
Hard-rock minerals include gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc and iron.
Mine operators are required to do reclamation work on U.S. Forest Service land if their operations occurred after August 1974 and on BLM land if the operations occurred in 1981 or later.
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found that 48,874 acres were damaged after the federal regulations went into effect. The estimated cost for reclaiming those lands is $49 million.
The BLM and the Forest Service could not tell the GAO when the damage occurred on an additional 71,393 acres. The estimated cost for reclaiming those lands is $39 million.
The remaining 161,314 acres were damaged before the regulations went into effect. Reclaiming them would cost an estimated $196 million.
Since 1974, Colorado, Utah, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming have spent $2.9 million to reclaim federal land damaged by hard-rock mining, according to the report. About $2 million of that came from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund, which is financed by a federal fee assessed on every ton of coal mined. The rest came from state funds.
Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have spent no state funds to reclaim the damaged sites, the report said.
The primary purpose of the fund is to promote reclamation of areas adversely affected by coal mining operations, although in some instances funds may be used to reclaim other sites that "endanger human life and property, constitute a hazard to public health or safety or degrade the environment," the report said.
"I find it ironic that both the Eastern and Western coal industries are now being made to pay for the past sins of the hard-rock mining industry," Rahall said.
The BLM and Forest Service have spent $363,523 from operating funds since 1978 to reclaim abandoned hard-rock mining sites where the land represented a hazard or degraded environmentally sensitive areas such as wilderness study areas, the GAO said.