Abandoned Mines Pose Threats - San Bernardino Sun

On Nov. 1, a 30-year-old woman was exploring an abandoned mine with family members in Kern County. The woman had entered a dark, underground tunnel when the ground gave way and she fell at least 50 feet to her death.

Dangerous abandoned mines like Tungsten Peak, where this tragedy occurred, litter the California landscape. There are 47,000 statewide and 500,000 across the western states. Many have ceased operations a century ago and the owners or responsible parties are long gone.

The Department of the Interior has published a list of recent fatalities related to abandoned mines. Victims range from a 13-year old girl who fell into a shaft while driving an all terrain vehicle to a Vietnam Veteran whose truck tipped into a mine pit. Throughout the United States, at least 37 deaths occurred between the years 1999 and 2007. In the past two years, eight accidents at abandoned mine sites were reported in California.

It's time for Congress to develop a comprehensive strategy to deal with the safety and public health problems of these abandoned mines.

Earlier this year, I introduced legislation to pay for the cleanup of abandoned mines, with fees and royalties paid by the hardrock mining industry. This consistent source of funding could help pay for basic safety measures, including the installation of warning signs, safety nets and fencing, as well as the cleanup of toxic chemicals that leech into waterways.

The scope of this abandoned mine problem is enormous and cleanup programs are underfunded. The California Department of Conservation estimates that California alone needs $4 billion.

The tunnels, shafts, and dilapidated structures of abandoned mines can be found in popular public recreation areas and near roads and highways. Historical mines attract exploration, which all too often produces deadly results.

In addition to these dangerous physical hazards, thousands of sites pose an environmental threat. Most historic mines operated before modern environmental laws were enacted and often contain harmful substances like mercury, chromium, cyanide and asbestos that can pollute drinking water, crops and fish.

To date, 17 watersheds in California have been impacted by toxic runoff.

In particular, California leads the nation in the number of abandoned mercury mines. A recent Associated Press article reported that there are as many as 550 old mercury mines, and only 10 have been cleaned up to date. Runoff from the mines continues to contaminate downstream environments and contributes to the problem of unsafe mercury levels in fish.

According to a UC Davis researcher, fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta region contain mercury levels considered to be unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. At least 100,000 California anglers and their families are at risk of mercury contamination.

It's clear that these abandoned mines pose a threat to public health and safety - and they must be cleaned up.

Unlike the coal industry, however, the metal mining industry does not pay to clean up its legacy of abandoned mines.

The bill I've introduced would create a new limited reclamation fee (of 0.3 percent) on the gross value of all hardrock mineral mining on federal, state, tribal, local and private lands.

The legislation would also establish an 8 percent royalty on new mining operations located on federal lands, and a 4 percent royalty for existing operations.

The bill would set spending priorities for the cleanup fund based on the severity of risk to public health and safety and the impact on natural resources. This will ensure that the abandoned mines that pose the greatest risk will be addressed first.

Finally, the bill would direct the secretary of the Interior to create an inventory of abandoned mines on all federal, state, tribal, local and private land. Unless we have a clear picture of the scope of the problem, we can't fully address it.

A July 2008 report from the Interior Department's Inspector General found that public health and safety have been compromised. The study concluded that program mismanagement and perennial funding shortfalls at federal agencies has impeded cleanup efforts.

Congress must move swiftly to address this issue before more environmental harm, injuries or death occur - so I will be working closely with my colleagues to ensure that a cleanup fund for abandoned hardrock mines is included in any comprehensive mining reform legislation or otherwise legislatively established.