July 25, 2008

Report: Abandoned Mines Threaten Health, Safety

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post

Sam Layne, abandoned mine supervisor, looks over a derelict mine shaft in the Arizona desert off U.S. Highway 60 between Florence Junction and Superior. Layne said plans are underway to fill in the shaft.

Thousands of dangerous and deteriorating mine shafts scattered across California, Arizona and Nevada contain unhealthy levels of arsenic, lead and mercury, according to a report from the Department of Interior inspector general.

Inspectors said they visited about 45 federal parks and conservation areas with abandoned mines between March 2007 and April 2008 and found the lands to have "dangerous physical safety and serious environmental hazards."

"The potential for more deaths and injuries is ominous," the report said, because of population growth and the use of off-road vehicles.

The report cited several problem spots within the lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, including a dilapidated, two-story concrete building at the American Flat Mill site, near the town of Virginia City, Nev., that is "extremely dangerous" and a known "party hangout" for local teens; thousands of open mine shafts near the Windy Point Recreation Area in Kingman, Ariz., where a 13-year-old girl died after falling into a 125-foot mine shaft over Labor Day weekend; and acidic water found at the Caselton Tailings site, near the town of Panaca, Nev., that reportedly can burn human skin on contact.

Inspectors also found health and safety problems at Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve in California; and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

Several Department of Interior employees also alleged that supervisors at the Bureau of Land Management told them to ignore abandoned mine shafts that lacked fencing or warning signs and criticized employees for trying to identify contaminated sites, the report said.

Matt Spangler, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, released a statement saying the agency "worked closely with the IG audit team over the last year in examining the complexities and challenges that land management agencies face in addressing hard rock abandoned mine lands (AML) impacts. The BLM accepts the recommendations and will work diligently to implement them."

Spangler noted that between 2007 and mid-year 2007, officials inventoried 5,500 sites and fixed physical safety hazards at 3,000 sites.)

The Department of Interior, acknowledging its mining safety program has been underfunded, said it has undertaken "temporary or interim measures" to mitigate hazards while "seeking additional funding to complete the needed remediation," according to the report.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration identified 33 abandoned mine deaths between 1999 and 2007 in the western United States.

In response to the report's findings, the Department of Interior and lawmakers recommended posting more warning signs and building fences to ward off visitors to dangerous mine shafts and installing sprinklers and temporary covers to reduce air and water-borne contamination at environmentally contaminated sites.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the report "paints an abysmal picture" of the efforts done to fix abandoned mines.

"It captures a snapshot of agencies that are failing to oversee abandoned hardrock mines, allowing these scarred properties to pose real and serious threats to the health and safety of Americans," Rahall said.

The committee held hearings last year to reform the Hardrock Mining Law of 1872, which regulates the bevy of mines built as gold, silver, copper and lead production in the West picked up steam in the 1850s.

Other environmental issues have been raised about old mines. Judy Pasternak of the Los Angeles Times wrote an award-winning series of articles in 2006 about the health problems caused by abandoned government uranium mines on Navajo land in the West.