Outrage over the spill at the Gold King Mine in Colorado — where 3 million gallons of polluted water gushed out — should be put to good use. That water, flowing into the Animas River, and eventually downstream to New Mexico waters, provided a stark reminder of the dangerous legacy of abandoned mines.
Now, rather than rage against an accident, the nation needs to deal with the hundreds of other accidents that are waiting to happen. As Justin Horwath reported in Sunday’s New Mexican, there are some 500,000 abandoned mines across the country. How many of those are in New Mexico? We just don’t know either the number of mines or what kind of environmental risk they pose. That’s not acceptable.
To date, the Bureau of Land Management has identified some 13,000 abandoned mines in New Mexico, but has not analyzed most of them. Close to 90 percent of the mines that BLM has identified have not been remediated.
After the Gold King Mine spill, Gov. Susana Martinez has said she would put some $750,000 into addressing fallout from that spill. Some of that, say state authorities, could be put to use at other abandoned mine sites. There’s an Abandoned Mine Land Program through the state Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources.
John Kretzmann, who manages the abandoned mine program for the state, says a natural first step is a comprehensive inventory. While that won’t be cheap, it’s essential to know how extensive the problem actually is. The biggest problem, of course, is money. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 was written with coal mining in mind. There isn’t a dedicated source of money to clean up abandoned hard-rock mines — gold, silver, lead, copper and zinc.
For the current situation to change, several things need to happen, both at the federal and state level. Congress must amend the General Mining Act of 1872 so that industry pays for its potential pollution. Companies extract resources but don’t have to pay toward past environmental disasters in the same manner the coal industry does. There needs to be a dedicated fund to take care of the environmental damage already created, as well as money deposited toward future damage. Federal dollars could be sent to states, with states matching a portion, to encourage greater attention to the issue.
At the state level, legislators and the governor’s environmental and energy people need to collaborate on laws — setting aside money for a proper inventory of abandoned mine sites, for one thing. Study some of the sites so that we know exactly what pollution has been left behind and what damage is being done. That knowledge would inform a targeted and systematic cleanup. Because of New Mexico’s 1993 Mining Act, mines currently in operation can’t be abandoned without some remediation, as in the earliest days of mining booms. That still leaves us with older, abandoned mines that need to be addressed.
Every day, all across New Mexico, abandoned mines are leaching contaminants, a constant dribble of pollution, causing damage that we simply lack the tools to assess. The Gold King Mine disaster is a potent reminder of the dangers that lurk underground.