Army Corps would help clean up abandoned mines under House bill

WASHINGTON - Western states would get federal relief in cleaning up abandoned mines that pollute rivers and threaten public health with acid runoff, under a bill from a Nevada Republican.

But Democratic lawmakers and officials from President Clinton's administration argued at a hearing Tuesday that the hard-rock mining industry should shoulder the cost like the coal industry.

Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Reno, drafted a bill to give the Army Corps of Engineers $45 million a year to control the drainage of acid and hazardous chemicals from mines. He set a high priority for six mines in Nevada.

''These sites need to be cleaned up before they become major environmental or public safety hazards,'' he told a hearing of the House Resources subcommittee on energy and mineral resources.

But Charles Smith, Army Corps assistant for the environment and regulatory affairs, said President Clinton's administration opposes the bill. Smith agreed that abandoned mines should be cleaned up, but said the fundamental policy is ''the polluter should pay.''

About 300,000 abandoned mines have been identified, some dating to the Gold Rush days of the late 1800s. Ownership is often uncertain.

Damage from runoff is widespread, as sulfide from the mines turns into sulfuric acid when it comes into contact with water and air. The acid then dissolves manganese, aluminum and calcium to create more pollution.

The Western Governors' Association estimated in 1991 that hard rock mining damaged 3,350 miles of streams in Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Utah.

''Abandoned and inactive non-coal mine lands have left indelible scars on the nation's landscape, and these lands pose significant hazards to public safety,'' Smith said.

In contrast to hard-rock mines, coal mines have paid a royalty to the federal government to clean up former mines since 1978. So far, the program has performed $1.4 billion in cleanup and has $2.5 billion in projects pending.

Del. Robert Underwood, D-Guam, advocated a similar payment plan for hard-rock mining.

''If the coal industry can survive and, indeed, thrive while paying a production fee for reclaiming its abandoned mines, then so too can the hard-rock mining industry,'' he said.

Alan Coyner, administrator of the Nevada division of minerals, said the state collects $300,000 from the industry annually to repair public-safety problems at abandoned mines, such as building fencing. But he said an estimated 50,000 sites need fencing.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has given Nevada $500,000 during the past two years to clean up runoff pollution at four sites. But the state has 100 to 200 sites needing attention and no estimate for the total cost of cleanup, Coyner said.

''While it is a solid beginning, it clearly falls short of what is needed to make significant gains against the problem,'' Coyner said.

Coyner suggested a source of cleanup funds could be the $30 million the federal government collects from mines for hard-rock claims that now pays to administer the mining law.

The Army Corps created an experimental program in 1998 to repair environmental damage from hard-rock mining. But Gibbons' bill would expand the program to cover public health and safety concerns.

His bill calls on the Army Corps to help federal and private, nonprofit groups control drainage from abandoned mines, restore streams and wetlands degraded from mine wastewater, and restore the sites for public access.

Smith argued that the industry should help pay for the program and that clear standards be set for standards the water should meet.

The six Nevada mines that Gibbons is targeting are: the Veta Grande Mine in Douglas County, the Johnston Mill Site and the Castleton Mine Site and Tailings Pond in Lincoln County, the Norse-Windfall Mill Site in Eureka County, the Rip Van Winkle Mine in Elko County and the Tybo Tailings Site in Nye County.


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