Last year, the bipartisan infrastructure act created the first-ever abandoned hardrock reclamation program. But no money was allocated to pay for it. To get the money, a fair royalty for hardrock mining on public lands would be established by the proposed legislation, one like the royalties established long ago for coal, oil and gas. The royalties would be used to clean up these abandoned mine sites.
The problem is so large that the federal government cannot reclaim the worst of the sites without help. But states, counties, nonprofits and other potential partners in reclamation efforts are hamstrung by federal laws that treat volunteers who want to help clean up abandoned mines as if they were the very polluters who created the messes.
An example is the effort to clean up the Lilly/Orphan Boy mine near Helena, Mont., one of several abandoned mines on Telegraph Creek in the Little Blackfoot watershed. Under a partnership between the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Trout Unlimited, toxic mine waste was removed from a floodplain. But the partners could not legally treat the acidic pollution flowing directly from the shuttered mine into the creek without taking on liability for a mess they didn’t create. As a result, though the mine was shut down in 1968, the pollution continues.
That’s why another of the proposed measures would provide states, counties and nonprofit groups with carefully prescribed liability protections, allowing these public-private and nonprofit partnerships to begin working on the root of the problem by directly treating toxic discharges.
As the United States pursues a transformation to renewable energy, responsible mining has a crucial role to play. The pandemic revealed major flaws in our reliance on foreign supply chains, and Russia’s war on Ukraine has highlighted the need for secure domestic sources of critical minerals that are the raw materials of clean power generation, electric vehicles and other emerging technologies.
At the same time, we need to invest a fair share of today’s gains into cleaning up the lasting consequences of more than a century of mining on our rivers and streams, fish and wildlife and communities that depend on clean water and healthy landscapes.
Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, represents New Mexico in the U.S. Senate. Chris Wood is the president and chief executive officer of the conservation group Trout Unlimited.