Washington, DC – Given the more than 47,000 abandoned mines in California and the more than 500,000 abandoned mines nationwide, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today introduced a measure to establish an abandoned mine fund. The fund will be used for the clean up of sites that were mined for minerals like gold, silver, copper, lead and precious gems.
 
The bill introduced today by Senator Feinstein would direct several sources of revenue for the cleanup fund, including reclamation fees for all new and existing hardrock mines – modeled after a similar program for the cleanup of abandoned coal mines. The bill would also impose royalty payments for new and existing hardrock mines on federal lands, as well as increase transaction and maintenance fees for hardrock mining operations.

“Abandoned mines in California and across the country pose a serious threat to public safety and health.” Senator Feinstein said. “Minerals from the mines have already begun to pollute our drinking water, crops and fish. And abandoned mine shafts endanger public safety. It’s clear that something must be done to cleanup these hazardous mines.

The problem is that we lack a reliable and steady stream of funding – and the scope of the cleanup effort is enormous.

That’s why I’ve introduced a bill to create an abandoned mine cleanup fund. The bill establishes several sources of revenue to pay for the cleanup, including royalty payments and reclamation fees.

We’ve seen that a similar program has helped to fund the cleanup of abandoned coal mines – and I believe that this is a sensible solution for the hardrock mining industry.” 

Surveys estimate that there are more than 500,000 abandoned hardrock mines in the United States. California alone has more than 47,000 abandoned mines.

 These abandoned mines pose a serious threat to public health and safety:

  • Water quality: Harmful minerals like mercury, chromium and asbestos seep into groundwater and pollute groundwater, drinking water, crops and fish species. To date, 17 watersheds in California have already been impacted by abandoned mine sites.
  • Public safety dangers: The public faces the danger of unknowingly falling into abandoned mine shafts. In the past two years, eight accidents at abandoned mine sites were reported in California, which resulted in four fatalities and seven cases of injuries. (additional information on public safety incidents follows below)

Today, there is no regular source of revenue for the cleanup of abandoned hardrock mines. In fact, hardrock mining companies are the only major mining sector not required to pay royalties to the federal government for the removal of minerals from public lands – even though the industry is experiencing near record high gold prices, around $900 per ounce.

In 2000, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimates that $982 million in hardrock minerals were taken from public lands – and the industry paid no royalties for those minerals. 

By contrast, companies that extract coal, oil, and natural gas from public lands and waters pay royalties that range between 8 - 12.5 percent.

The reason is this:  the national standards that regulate gold and silver mining operations were established by the 1872 Mining Law – and they have not been updated since.

Specifically, the bill introduced today by Senator Feinstein would reform the 1872 Mining Law in the following ways:

  • Creates an Abandoned Mine Cleanup Fund. The fund will be used to clean up and restore land and water resources adversely affected by past hardrock mining activities, including habitat cleanup and restoration.
  • Establishes spending priorities for the cleanup fund, based on the severity of the risk to public health, public safety, and the impact on natural resources. These priorities are similar to those included in the House-approved mining legislation.
  • Directs the Secretary of Interior to create an inventory of abandoned mines on all Federal, State, tribal, local and private land. Once the inventory is complete, the Secretary is instructed to provide cleanup funding according to the spending priorities listed above.

 Unlike the House-approved mining bill, the funding for abandoned mines in the Feinstein legislation will be based entirely on the priorities laid out in the legislation.

  • Establishes three sources of revenue for the Abandoned Mine Cleanup Fund:
    • Reclamation fee: Creates a 0.3 percent reclamation fee on all hardrock mineral mining, including mining on Federal, State, tribal, local and private lands. This reclamation fee is modeled after Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which established a fee to finance restoration of land abandoned or inadequately restored by coal mining companies. This fund has raised billions of dollars for coal mine reclamation.
    • Royalty payments: Requires mining companies that extract minerals from federal land to pay a royalty – 4 percent royalty on existing operations and an 8 percent royalty on new mining operations. These royalties are consistent with those in the mining bill approved by the House late last year.
    • Increased maintenance fees: The bill increases hardrock mining fees that are already in place, such as the maintenance fee and the transfer fee. These increased fees are consistent with the levels included in the mining bill approved by the House late last year.

The measure introduced by Senator Feinstein is intended to be one part of the comprehensive mining reform debate expected to occur in the Senate later this year. Senator Feinstein is also supportive of efforts to reform mining law more broadly. 

Background on Abandoned Mines in California:

The California Department of Conservation estimates there are currently about 47,000 abandoned mines in California.  Of these, an estimated 5,200, or 11 percent, are environmental health hazards, and an estimated 39,400, or 84 percent, are physical safety hazards.
 
Health hazards:

The Bureau of Land Management reports that, to date, abandoned mines have contaminated 17 major watersheds in California. 

The most common hazards include heavy metals associated with acid-rock drainage (ARD); methyl mercury from mercury-contaminated sediments; other forms of mercury from mercury mines; arsenic; asbestos; and chromium.

The contamination of groundwater not only impacts the quality of drinking water, it also impacts crops and aquatic life.

  • In January 2000, contaminated soil from an abandoned mercury mine near Cambria in San Luis Obispo County led state agencies to embargo all crops from a nearby organic farm which cultivated lettuce and spinach on toxic-laden tailings. Worried consumers flooded County Health Agency with calls. (Source: San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune)
  • In March 2000, thousands to millions of gallons of acidic, toxic runoff from the abandoned Leviathan Mine located in Alpine County threatened to overflow from the retention ponds and pollute creeks feeding the Carson River. The creeks were already so polluted, they could support aquatic life. The site has been listed on the U.S. EPA National Priorities List, or Superfund list since May 11, 2000. (Source: Tahoe Tribune)

Public safety incidents:

Here are some examples of recent incidents involving abandoned mines on federal lands:

  • Imperial County: In March 2006, a passenger and driver in an off-highway vehicle fell down an abandoned mine shaft and were stuck there for 20 hours before they were rescued. The passenger was unharmed, but the driver had a possible broken arm. (Source:  Yuma Sun)
  • Kern County: In October 2003, a father and son drove their SUV into a 70-shaft of the Union Zahr Mine in the Six Rivers National Forest. The father was killed in the accident and the son was left with serious injuries. (Source: Del Norte County Triplicate)
  • Butte County: In March 1998, a 4’4-foot wide by 30-foot deep shaft suddenly caved in under the carport of a home in a downtown, residential area of Oroville. This shaft is a remnant of potentially extensive undocumented underground workings in gravels that have caused several publicized cases of subsidence in Oroville over the past few years. (Source: KCRA 3 TV Sacramento-Stockton)
  • Calaveras County: In April 1998, an off-road ATV rider left his vehicle and a companion to go exploring at night in a remote area, and fell 75 feet down an air shaft into an abandoned gold mine. The victim laid injured with a broken back at the bottom of the shaft for more than 12 hours, and was rescued only after the last shot fired from his handgun alerted rescuers to his location. (Source: Modesto Bee)

Here is the most recent estimate of abandoned mine sites in California: 
 
The size and hazard level differs for each abandoned mine. These sites vary from large, deep mines with dozens of entrances, to smaller, shallow mines with only one or two entrance.
 

County  Number of Mines
Alameda 58
Alpine 102
Amador  316
Butte 257
Calaveras 586
Colusa 59
Contra Costa 103
Del Norte 527
El Dorado 553
Fresno 605
Glenn 44
Humboldt 168
Imperial 913
Inyo 9,698
Kern 4,498
Kings 39
Lake 74
Lassen 434
Los Angeles 354
Madera 213
Marin 40
Mariposa 973
Mendocino 128
Merced 50
Modoc  297 
Mono  2,519 
Monterey  105
Napa  131
Nevada  366 
Orange  76
Placer  747 
Plumas  477 
Riverside  2,505 
Sacramento  104
San Benito  443 
San Bernardino  12,220 
San Diego  670
San Francisco  0
San Joaquin  61 
San Luis Obispo  290 
San Mateo  20 
Santa Barbara  116 
Santa Clara  286 
Santa Cruz   40 
Shasta  637 
Sierra  520 
Siskiyou  1,696 
Solano  54 
Sonoma  113 
Stanislaus  117 
Sutter 
Tehama  121 
Trinity  414 
Tulare  262 
Tuolumne  697 
Ventura  105 
Yolo  18 
Yuba  65 
Total  47,084



 
    
 
  

 
 
  

 
 
 
  

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 
 



 


 



 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: California Department of Conservation, Abandoned Mine Lands Unit (January 2008)

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