One of the nation's longest-running environmental eyesores is poised to become a critical jobs engine for the rural West under the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Together, the Interior and Agriculture departments expect to set off a hiring boom among idled industry and agricultural workers whose charge will be to clean up thousands of abandoned hardrock mines that once formed the backbone of the region's economy, but whose greater legacy is one of toxic wastes and thousands of miles of contaminated rivers, creeks and streams.
Three agencies -- the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service -- are working to finalize the list of cleanup projects to be funded with $105 million in stimulus money. Nearly half of the money, $50 million, will go the Park Service, whose lackluster attention to abandoned mines drew sharp criticism from the Interior Department's inspector general in a report issued last July. The remaining funds will be split between BLM and the Forest Service, at $30 million and $25 million, respectively, according to a spokesman for Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who sponsored an amendment detailing the agencies' shares.
"It's a huge infusion [of money], like we've never seen before," said John Burghardt, coordinator of NPS's Abandoned Mine Lands and Mining Claim Validity programs.
Proponents of the cleanup program say the stimulus money will create hundreds of new jobs over a short period, and that hundreds of mines are already in the pipeline for cleanup once the funds are distributed. But others question whether throwing millions of dollars at an intractable environmental problem like mine wastes is the best use of economic recovery dollars.
Among the arguments made by critics is that such projects come with too many bureaucratic hurdles, including long lead times for environmental assessments and compliance with other provisions of federal law.
But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters during a conference call last week that the Park Service and BLM will select projects whose environmental assessments have been completed, and that officials will avoid using stimulus money on sites where cleanup may be slowed by environmental problems or legal challenges.
"BLM, by itself, has a huge number of mines across the country that are already shovel ready to go and mines that could be remediated as soon as we give them the go-ahead," Salazar said. "We will be moving forward on that agenda as quickly as we can."
Daniel Esty, a former senior EPA official and environmental adviser to Obama's presidential transition team, said including dollars for mine cleanup is consistent with the administration's overarching goal for the stimulus package: to serve the public good by protecting dwindling water supplies and improving conditions in the national parks and forests.
"The president has been very clear and the public supports him that this is a time to get the economy back on track, and beyond that to ensure that society has something to show for it down the line," said Esty, the director of Yale Law School's Center for Environmental Law and Policy. "There is real value in putting people to work in ways that not only produce a paycheck but also [provides] long-term value for the American public."
An 'enormous' problem
Mining once formed the backbone of the economy in many parts of the United States, but the nation's 19th- and early 20th-century quest for mineral wealth came with huge environmental downsides. Today, the Government Accountability Office estimates at least 250,000 abandoned mines dot the landscape, many of which are former hardrock mines in the West.
Hardrock mines pose particular environmental concerns because after the valuable metals are extracted, the leftover waste rock is often pushed into surface piles where it is exposed to wind and rain. Over time, mineral sulfides in the waste rock cause the leaching of heavy metals, which in turn accumulate in streams, creeks and rivers.
The problem is so extensive that one EPA estimate placed the full cost of abandoned mine cleanup at $50 billion. The agency spent roughly $2.2 billion between 1998 and 2007 working on mine cleanup projects across the country, while BLM and the Forest Service spent $259 million targeting mine pollution on public lands. Congress, meanwhile, allocates about $30 million annually to the two agencies to target roughly 50 abandoned mines each year.
Given the magnitude of the problem, experts say the stimulus bill provision for mine cleanup is money well spent.
"The need's so enormous," said Velma Smith, manager of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, which has lobbied Congress to reform mining laws to prevent future mine pollution. "So I don't think we can't underestimate the impact the economic stimulus money will have."
The Interstate Mining Compact Commission, which represents state government interests in addressing mining's environmental impacts, is also convinced that using stimulus money to clean mines will quickly "benefit the environment and stimulate the economy."
In a joint statement last December to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the IMCC and the National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs reported that tens of millions of dollars' worth of mine reclamation projects were shovel ready, and that executing those projects would result in the hiring of hundreds of contractors, engineers and other workers.
"Most of this abandoned mine land work is done by local contractors using local materials, so it's very much the kind of thing that has impact locally," said Greg Conrad, IMCC's executive director. "These projects will have a very big on-the-ground impact."
Biggest bang for the buck?
But even with the expected boost in jobs, some question whether using federal stimulus money to clean abandoned mines in remote settings will provide a sufficient societal benefit, as the Obama administration has indicated is its priority.
Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation who now heads the environmental group at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, suggested that other environmental projects -- such as retrofitting diesel school buses with air pollution controls -- offer more bang for the buck because they require new equipment purchases and labor to install the controls, and ultimately improve public health by reducing diesel particulate pollution that contributes to thousands of premature deaths each year.
"There are some environmental cleanups that clearly have long-term value, but others that clearly don't," Holmstead said. "Abandoned mines tend to be in pretty isolated areas where there's little human exposure to contaminants. My gut feeling is it's probably not a great investment."
Smith, with the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, disagreed. She cited a 1997 EPA study that detailed the environmental risks of mine pollution, including a finding of "significant populations" living within close proximity of hardrock mines, especially in the West.
Moreover, she said, pollution from abandoned mines can have affects far from the mine site itself. The U.S. Bureau of Mines, for example, has calculated that 12,000 miles of rivers in the West are contaminated with metals from mining operations, often at significant distances from the pollution's point of origin.
"Many of these sites create widespread and long-term water problems," Smith said. "So it becomes more important to clean the mess up."
Peru Creek mess
One example of a mine whose lingering pollution problems could be addressed under the stimulus package is the Pennsylvania Mine in northwest Colorado.
The abandoned hardrock mine, whose operations date to the late 1800s, continues to bleed toxic metals, including lead and copper, into nearby Peru Creek. From there, the metals move down the Snake River watershed, cutting through the White River National Forest and past expensive ski lodges before emptying into a massive reservoir that provides drinking water for the Denver metro area (Land Letter, Dec. 4, 2008).
The pollution has decimated once-thriving stocks of rainbow and brook trout and turned Peru Creek into the most polluted waterway in the Snake River watershed, said Jean Mackenzie, a remedial project manager at EPA's Denver regional office who is overseeing the cleanup effort.
Now, the Pennsylvania Mine is a strong candidate to receive cleanup money from the stimulus package, said Kurt Muenchow, abandoned mine lands program manager for the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region in Denver.
The Forest Service, working with EPA, the U.S. Geological Survey and Colorado regulators, has put together a request for just over $1 million in economic stimulus funding to clean not only the polluted water flowing from the mine, but piles of waste rock that sit on adjacent national forest land and continue to pollute the Snake River.
Muenchow said the regional office could know as early as this week whether their project made the list of funded cleanups.
"We're competing with all the other land management agencies for some of that money," he said. "But the Pennsylvania Mine project is hopefully a strong contender because we're partnering with the EPA and others, and there are significant environmental benefits."
Elizabeth Russell, mine restoration project manager for Trout Unlimited, said the additional spending on Peru Creek could have significant implications for the broader Snake River watershed, which the organization has spent years trying to restore.
"Cleaning up that old mine would be the best thing in the world," Russell said.
New life for old mines
Once cleaned up, at least some of the former mines could be used to advance another central objective of the economic stimulus plan: expanding wide-scale use of alternative energy.
Salazar, in his teleconference with reporters, said he wants the public lands to be "an engine for the clean-energy economy," which could steer billions of dollars toward the construction of solar arrays, wind farms and geothermal power plants.
Reclaimed mine sites are ideal for solar and wind projects because they are far enough away from population centers not to be a nuisance and the land has already been disturbed by mining activity, thus minimizing habitat destruction. In addition, the sites are often linked by roads and electric transmission lines.
The Mine-Scarred Lands Initiative, a 7-year-old federal program administered by EPA, BLM and the Forest Service, would treat restored mines as brownfields that could be redeveloped by the private sector with financial assistance from federal agencies.
"Definitely, the stimulus money [EPA] is set to receive will be used to access, clean and redevelop brownfields sites, and abandoned mines can be used for that," said David Lloyd, director of EPA's Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization. "The remediation and reuse of abandoned mines is a priority."
Federal regulators are already testing the concept at a former mine in Beatty, Nev., about 110 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The Bullfrog Mine ceased operations in 1999, and its owner, Barrick Gold Inc., has transferred 81 acres of the site to the town of Beatty. Studies show that the Beatty area has some of the best solar energy potential in the United States, as well as a high potential for wind-power generation.
EPA is working with town leaders to develop a large solar array atop the old mine site, and money from the economic stimulus package could be used to advance that project.
"In terms of upping the amount of renewable energy we generate, this idea is a perfect fit," said Smith with the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining. "It's a win-win."
Scott Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.
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