Health and safety threats and environmental damage caused by toxic metal and chemical leaching from abandoned hard rock mines are serious national problems. Acid drainage from these mines not only poses a direct environmental hazard at the source but also creates potential liability for the federal government due to downstream contamination.
Currently, reliable data on the total number of mines producing acid drainage and the number of miles of streams affected by acid and metal drainage are not available. However, various estimates have placed the number of these mines in the range of 20,000-50,000. An estimated $11 billion would be needed to reclaim all existing abandoned non-coal mines.
The environmental problems of hard rock mining occur when acid drainage creates large toxic, metal-bearing sediment loads in stream channels. The channels may be brightly colored red, purple, and orange by precipitates of iron and other metal compounds. Stream waters become acidified by the metal constituents. Fish and other organisms in the system are lost in the waters most affected as a result of metal contamination. Streamside vegetation is often changed, and the nearby ground water may become contaminated with metal ions.
A more vigorous cleanup effort can be mounted by creation of a new abandoned mine land (AML) reclamation fund similar to the existing fund for abandoned coal mines. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) created the AML Fund to be used for restoration of abandoned coal mines. Abandoned mine reclamation in hard rock mining is permitted using existing AML grants only after a state completes all high-priority coal mine reclamation or if the non-coal project is for the protection of human health and safety.
The existing fund, which is based on a tax on coal production, is not intended to address the major cleanup requirements arising from abandoned non-coal mines nor are sufficient funds available to meet non- coal needs.
Structural problems also make the existing program less effective than it might be. These problems include:
--a distribution formula which is not directly related to priority reclamation needs;
--a structure which permits insufficient appropriations from the fund each year;
--lack of a mine inventory which is widely accepted as accurate; and
--use of the fund for nonreclamation purposes.
Legislation currently under consideration in Congress contains possible alternatives for structuring a new program for hard rock mine reclamation. Current interest in legislation for mining law reform provides an opportunity to structure this new fund so as to avoid problems that exist with the current AML fund.
Creating a new AML fund at this time would provide the added opportunity to structure an organization to effectively and efficiently address the issue of abandoned hard rock mine reclamation. While the existing AML program can provide the framework of a reclamation program for hard rock mine reclamation, creating a new, separate program will provide an opportunity to address and avoid perceived financial, managerial, and political problems with the existing AML program. (These problems are discussed in detail in a separate issue paper on redefining federal oversight in coal mine regulation.)
Although the pending mining reform legislation (HR. 322 and S. 775 introduced by Congressman Nick Rahall of West Virginia and Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, respectively) provides an opportunity to create a responsible reclamation program, the uncertain status of that legislation complicates NPR's task of making specific recommendations to resolve this issue.
The administration has not yet made final decisions about many of the elements of a reclamation program. Therefore, the recommendations outlined here represent current thinking or sketch the range of options currently under consideration, but are subject to change.
In addition to supporting legislative remedies, the Department of the Interior (DOI) should play an active role in coordinating research on acid mine drainage and cleanup of toxic waste. Cross-agency, intergovernmental and private sector cooperation in research activities could improve cleanup results and lower the costs of mine reclamation.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Mines (BOM) are engaged in a cooperative research project focusing on acid drainage prediction, development of effective technologies to control drainage at both abandoned and operating sites, and development of cost-effective technology to correct acid drainage from abandoned sites.
BOM and the National Park Service (NPS) also have a memorandum of understanding to coordinate activities related to mine reclamation. While the USFS-BOM and NPS-BOM cooperative agreements are a start, there is neither a broader coordinated effort involving research organizations, land management agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector, nor funding specifically targeted for this purpose.
1. Legislation should be enacted to establish a new hard rock mining reclamation fund, with restrictions placed on the purposes for which the fund can be spent, emphasizing its use for cleanup and research, prohibiting use for unrelated purposes, and limiting the administrative expenses of the program.
The fund should be structured as a permanent appropriation with distribution based on priority needs as determined by a nationwide priority system and inventory of abandoned mine sites on federal, state, and private lands.
DOI should recommend that proposed legislation devote a significant portion of the royalty for mines on federal lands to reclamation and/or levy a separate reclamation fee on all hard rock mines.
2. DOI should establish a nationwide priority system for cleanup of abandoned hard rock mines based on the risks involved and identified through an inventory of mine sites.
For example, the system would rank mine sites by risks as follows:
--imminent and substantial harm to the public health or safety;
--significant risk of harm to public health, safety, or the environment; and
--degree of difficulty of restoration of degraded lands and waters.
The states should participate in the inventory and prioritization.
3. In the course of formulating the Administration's position on hard rock mine reclamation, DOI should carefully review the strengths and weaknesses of the existing coal AML program.
As with the existing coal program, states should implement and manage regulatory and AML programs with federal approval and oversight. A decision on which DOI office will manage the new program should be based on staffing capabilities and related program experience in existing DOI offices.
4. Using the USFS/BOM cooperative research project as a model, DOI should take the lead in developing an interagency program of research and development and implementation of mine cleanup on federal lands, beginning with a thorough inventory of mining sites.
The program should be established by the beginning of fiscal year 1995. This program should take maximum advantage of opportunities for private sector participation and cooperative funding.
Western states are supportive of the idea of an AML reclamation program and will favor options that maximize their discretion and control over funding and priorities. The mining industry is not supportive of fees or royalties in general and is opposed to the idea that the industry should be taxed to correct the errors of the past.
Program implementation may eventually require more federal personnel and will also have an impact on the states in implementation of their regulatory and reclamation programs. In theory, royalties and fees will provide adequate funding to cover the new programs. It is not possible at this time to determine the fiscal impact of the proposal because many of the essential elements, such as the amount of royalties and fees, are still unknown.
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