The western region of the United States was untouched before thousands trekked far from home in search of the American dream.
These men wanted to build a life. They began to stretch out, swallow the land and use it for profit. Many were employed as miners, breaking into the earth’s rock day in and out to uncover valuable minerals.
The mines were largely unregulated during the great migration and subsequent industrial boom. Fast forward hundreds of years later and these regional mines are now abandoned, left to contaminate Western water sources with dangerous metals.
The Evidence of Contamination
In 2011, the Government Accountability Office released a report that found at least 161,000 abandoned hardrock mines in 12 western states and Alaska. These mines pose an environmental risk, with at least 33,000 leading to the contamination of surface and groundwater.
Drainage from these unmaintained mines has affected 40 percent of western watersheds. In Colorado, 230 mines have leaked metals into 1,645 miles of rivers and streams, according to The Department of Public Health and Environment.
In addition, 161,000 sites were identified as environmental risk factors, with 332,000 unstable areas that could decay, collapse and cause a toxic waste-water leak.
The contamination stems from a lack of regulation imposed on western mining sites and the site’s owners. When miners struck the rock, they released iron sulfide, which blended with air and pyrite and created sulfuric acid. The acid dissolved the rock and allowed metals like copper and lead to flow into the mine’s wastewater.
Despite the fact that there was knowledge of the worsening situation, no one was required to stop it.
“In the old days, there was very little control, and not much attention paid to control,” Ronald Cohen, an environmental engineer at the Colorado School of Mines, explained to public radio station KUNC.
The Clean Up
Earthworks Action, an environmental advocacy organization, created a comprehensive list of all the currently identified abandoned mines and the issues that have stemmed from the lack of regulation.
The list includes sites in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Earthworks Action estimates that it would take $72 billion to fix the mess, which was allowed to worsen without restraint. And that’s not including the mines that have yet to be identified and investigated.
These mines not only contaminate the water supply. They also pollute soil, kill wildlife and harm humans. Since no one claims ownership to the mines, taxpayer money would most likely fund the clean up.
If 33,000 abandoned mines could end up to contaminating surface and groundwater and 332,000 unstable areas could collapse and lead to toxic exposure, government agencies have a lot of work to do.
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