Stimulus bill expected to restart mine cleanup

Agency reports Alaska has 469 mine sites with 235 unsafe features

Posted: Monday, February 16, 2009

WASHINGTON - When the Beal Mountain mine opened in 1988 near Butte, Mont., its owner promoted open-pit cyanide leaching for extracting gold from ore as modern and environmentally friendly.

Ross D. Franklin / The Associated Press
Ross D. Franklin / The Associated Press

Pegasus Gold Corp., a Canadian company, extracted nearly 460,000 ounces of gold over a decade before closing the mine and declaring bankruptcy in 1998.

It left behind a 70-acre, cyanide-contaminated leach pond with a leaky liner and tons of rubble that sends selenium-laced runoff into streams, threatening cutthroat trout and other fish. The $6.2 million reclamation bond posted by the company doesn't come close to covering the full cost to clean up the mine, which could total nearly $40 million.

"There is a real ticking time bomb up there," said Josh Vincent, president of a Trout Unlimited chapter near the mine, which sits on U.S. Forest Service land.

Efforts to clean up one of the West's most enduring and dangerous legacies - tens of thousands of abandoned hardrock mines, many dating to the 19th century - should get a boost from the economic stimulus bill awaiting President Barack Obama's signature.

The final bill, approved by the House and Senate on Friday, contains more than $1.5 billion for construction and maintenance projects in the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Forest Service. That includes addressing pollution and safety hazards caused by abandoned mines on public lands.

The three agencies together spent about $25 million on mine cleanup in the budget year that ended last Sept. 30, according to the staff of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of the lawmakers who sought the money.

Projects ranging from repairing trails to replacing equipment also are eligible for the money, so there is no guarantee the money will be spent on mine cleanup.

Advocates for cleaning up abandoned mines say the work is a strong job-generator.

The Government Accountability Office estimates there are at least 161,000 abandoned hardrock mines in Alaska and 11 other western states. Open mine shafts and decaying structures pose safety hazards, contaminants are polluting streams and groundwater, and piles of tailings tinged with arsenic have been left behind.

In the Pacific Northwest, according to the report, Washington has 3,629 mine sites, 1,608 unsafe features and 50 sites with environmental degradation. Oregon has 3,823 mine sites, no available figures on unsafe features and 140 degraded sites. Idaho has 7,100 mine sides with no available figures on unsafe features or degradation, and Alaska has 469 mine sites with 235 unsafe features and 99 degraded sites.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates it could cost as much as $50 billion to clean up all the nation's abandoned hardrock mines.

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