July 26, 2008

Two agencies blamed for dangers at old mines

Audit: Park Service, BLM failing to clean, close sites

by Ginger D. Richardson
The Arizona Republic

Seth Johnson looks down into the mine shaft behind a makeshift memorial marking the site where two sisters fell into a 125-foot-deep abandoned mine shaft while driving their all-terrain vehicle in Chloride, Ariz. Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

The federal government put the public at risk by failing to clean up and close off abandoned mines in Arizona, California and Nevada.

That is the conclusion of a 42-page, blistering audit released Friday by the Department of Interior's inspector general.

Western mines have "dangerously dilapidated structures, serious environmental hazards and gaping cavities," according to the report, which also said that unsafe levels of lead, arsenic and mercury were found at sites easily accessible to the public.

At least 12 people died in abandoned-mine accidents from 2004 to 2007, according to the report, which specifically mentioned the death last year of 13-year-old Rikki Howard, who was killed when the ATV she was riding plunged into a Kingman-area mine shaft. Her sister was seriously injured. The shaft is surrounded by federal property, and the Bureau of Land Management maintains a campsite nearby.

The report focused exclusively on those mines under the jurisdiction of the BLM and the National Park Service.

Inspectors visited 45 areas in the three Western states from March 2007 to April 2008, including those near Kingman, Wickenburg, Octave, Quartzsite, Vulture and the Grand Canyon.

There are estimated to be 100,000 mine sites in Arizona.

At the Arizona sites, federal investigators found open shafts, inadequate fencing and signs, unrestricted access to open mines, safety hazards because of deteriorating structures and, in some cases, high levels of radiation.

Steps had been taken to mitigate the danger at only one of the two Grand Canyon sites: the so-called Orphan Mine on the South Rim Trail.

"The potential for more deaths and injuries is ominous," the report said.

The inspector general's audit ultimately concludes that the BLM's program for dealing with abandoned mines is "ineffective" and recommends establishing a specific line item in the budget for the abandoned-mine program, as well as the employment of experienced and trained staff.

The report also says the BLM should issue a clear policy statement that forbids retaliation against employees who identify or report abandoned mines. The audit said it is "disturbing" that some would-be whistle-blowers were criticized or threatened if they documented such locations.

The BLM, which administers more than 12 million acres of public land in Arizona, issued a lengthy statement in its own defense Friday, in which it called its abandoned-mine program "highly effective."

"Considerable progress is being made to address the program priorities of water-quality restoration and elimination of physical safety hazards," the statement said. The BLM added that from 2000 to 2007, it had inventoried 5,500 abandoned-mine sites and had mitigated safety hazards at "many" of them.

Conservationists lauded the inspector general's report, saying it underscores the need for mining reform and the need to dedicate a funding source for cleanup.

The Environmental Protection Agency and other groups have estimated mine-cleanup costs to be anywhere from $52 billion to $72 billion.

"The real culprit, in our opinion, is that there is no royalty in place to fund abandoned-mine reclamation," said Alan Septoff, research director at Earthworks, a Washington, D.C.-based mining watchdog organization. "There is no dedicated funding source."

Others renewed their call for an overhaul of the General Mining Act of 1872, which was designed to promote the search for valuable minerals and the settlement of the West. The law, as written, contains minimal requirements for remediation of mine sites.

"Hazards like these exist because the outdated 1872 mining law does not have adequate cleanup positions," said Velma Smith, manager for the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining. "This report shows a real-world need for mining-law reform."

The House of Representatives last year passed revamped mining legislation that includes more stringent environmental protections for mined land and requires miners to pay royalties for the gold, copper and other minerals they extract. The proposal has stalled in the Senate.