Last year, the bipartisan Infrastructure Act created the first-ever abandoned hard rock rehabilitation program. But no money was allocated to pay for it. To get the money, a fair royalty for hard rock mining on public lands would be established by the bill, similar to royalties long established for coal, oil and gas. The royalties would be used to clean up these abandoned mine sites.
The problem is so big that the federal government can’t recover 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 the very polluters who created the damage.
One example is the Lilly/Orphan Boy Mine cleanup effort near Helena, Montana, one of many abandoned mines on Telegraph Creek in the Little Blackfoot watershed. In 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 deal with the acidic pollution flowing directly from the closed mine into the creek without taking responsibility for a mess they did not create. As a result, although the mine was closed in 1968, 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 start working on the root of the problem. by directly treating toxic discharges.
As the United States continues its transition to renewable energy, responsible mining has a crucial role to play. The pandemic has exposed 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 for clean energy generation, electric vehicles and other emerging technologies.
At the same time, we must invest a fair share of today’s gains in cleaning up the lasting consequences of more than a century of mining on our rivers and streams, our fish and wildlife, and our communities that depend clean water and healthy landscapes.
Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, represents New Mexico in the US Senate. Chris Wood is the president and CEO of the conservation group Trout Unlimited.