Regulators deal with mines left abandoned.
By Joe Baird
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 02/13/2006 1:10 AM MST
From days past: Utah has between 17,000 and 20,000 of the dangerous shafts dotting the state.
Imagine that the state of Utah is chock full of holes, thousands and thousands of them.
And that each is a potential environmental or public safety hazard. Now imagine yourself a state or federal abandoned mine program regulator. This is your reality.
Utah has anywhere from 17,000 to 20,000 old, abandoned hard rock mines, dotting the state from the west desert to the Wasatch to the Colorado Plateau. Most of them are remote and rarely encountered. But between what they can emit and what can happen to those who unwittingly enter them, regulators, environmentalists and academics see an increasing threat.
"What we've got is a huge problem," says Terry Snyder, abandoned mines coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management Office in Utah.
With his trusty pick and shovel, the hard rock miner stands alongside the cowboy on the short list of the West's iconic images. But those grizzled gold and silver prospectors, who toiled long before environmental regulations, also left behind a mess.
Waters laced with lead, arsenic, zinc and other metals have seeped out of abandoned Rocky Mountain mines and into watersheds, crippling native fish habitat and, in some cases, threatening drinking water supplies.
And abandoned dry mines have become a safety issue as the West's booming Sun Belt cities extend further into the desert, putting them into closer proximity with people, including small children.
All across the West, states have teamed with the BLM, the Forest Service and the National Park Service in a multipronged effort to repair and stabilize the old mine sites.
In Utah, the feds work with the state's Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, which receives a yearly stipend of $1.5 million in federal coal tax money. With most of the state's defunct coal mines remediated, that money can be spent on hard rock mines.
The state, with its partners, already has closed up 6,000 to 7,000 hard rock mines. But the vast majority of the work remains in front of them.
"Virtually every part of the state has been impacted by mining of some sort," says Mark Mesch, administrator for the state's abandoned mine program.
"Anywhere you go, you can encounter an old mine. If you're out on your ATV [all-terrain vehicle], chances are you're on a mining road, and following it will lead you to an abandoned mine. There are a lot of them out there.
What you have to remember is that, before 1977, no state or federal law really dealt with this problem."
A new report, published by the University of Colorado-based Center of the American West, argues that the time has come to do more, citing the environmental impacts of acid draining from mines.
The U.S. Bureau of Mines, the report says, estimates that about 40 percent of the waterways in the Western United States are contaminated by acidic mine drainage, while 180,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs are infected by abandoned mine runoff.
"We must remember that all rivers contain some amount of minerals from natural resources," says the report, authored by Patricia Limerick, Joseph Ryan, Timothy Brown and Allan Comp.
"But even if we lower our standards for what we call an impaired stream, we still come to the sobering realization that a great deal of wilderness, much of it located in national forests and other public lands, is partially or wholly spoiled for fishing and hunting and hiking."
The report calls for the passage of so-called "Good Samaritan" legislation, which is currently winding its way through Congress and would ease the liability burden unwittingly written into the Clean Water Act, allowing conservation groups, nonprofit organizations and companies to conduct their own mine cleanups with much less of a hassle.
A pilot program for that approach was launched in Utah, when Trout Unlimited, Snowbird and others teamed up with the Forest Service and got federal funds and a grant from the Tiffany Co. to clean up the cadmium, zinc and other contaminants seeping out of old silver mines in American Fork Canyon.
"Our goal is to allow groups to clean up these sites without incurring serious liability," said Paul Dremann, vice president of conservation for the Utah chapter of Trout Unlimited.
"What's going on right now is more about an EPA administrative position than the [Good Samaritan] legislation, but it's a good first step." Utah has other abandoned mine sites with water issues, such as the Cottonwood Wash project outside Blanding, where the contamination issue is uranium.
But in fact, the state has relatively few water problems compared to neighbors such as Colorado or Montana. Most of Utah's mines are dry, meaning the primary issue here - and the focus of the state's abandoned mine program - is safety.
And what concerns abandoned mine regulators the most is high-growth areas, such as Washington and Tooele counties, where there are subdivisions in areas that used to be dominated by mining claims - and still house those remnants.
"It's kind of frightening," said Mesch. "Because people want to live out in the country, development and mining history are coming face to face.
I got a call from a St. George woman who said her son was playing in a mine shaft. We identified 512 mines in that 800-acre area. That's almost one mine per acre."
The staffers from the state's abandoned mine program identify and prioritize reclamation projects based upon the presence of roads, mines and population in a given area.
At the top of the division's priority list now is an abandoned mining district near Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, along the historic Pony Express route - an area that features 362 sites, 900 mine shafts and lots of visitors in a 265-mile area.
But not everyone is thrilled with state and federal mine reclamation efforts. Corey Shuman, who owns an outfitter service that guides tourists through Utah's ghost towns and abandoned mine districts, says regulators are snuffing out the state's history and "throwing money at something that is not a problem."
Said Shuman, founder of Draper-based Gold Rush Expeditions: "What we preach is common sense. Not using common sense is how the majority of accidents occur. Most people take pictures, and don't go into a mine more than 20 feet. We've gone in about as far as you can go, and it's safe. The guys who built the mines made them structurally safe. There's not much danger of them caving in."
Mesch and federal mine remediation officials take a dim view of those kinds of assertions, and have circulated through Utah schools with an safety awareness program that they hope will deter curious kids - and their parents - from entering old mine shafts.
Five people have lost their lives in abandoned mines in Utah since 1985. Virtually every part of the state has been impacted by mining of some sort. Anywhere you go, you can encounter an old mine. . . . What you have to remember is that, before 1977, no state or federal law really dealt with this problem.