The recent series in The Durango Herald about mining issues and water quality in the upper Animas River basin highlight an all too common problem: The question of how to handle the legacy of pollution by mining of oil and gas or other industrial activity when things don’t go as planned is widespread.
There are more than 500,000 old mines throughout the West – and even the Eastern states – that continue to spew a toxic mix of metals into our rivers and streams. There are hundreds of mines from the last 50 years, and dozens that are now active, that do so, as well. It is a problem we have not learned to prevent.
The issue is not limited to hard-rock (metal) mines. Coal mines also cause acid mine drainage. A historic coal mine on Perins Peak is leaking extremely polluted water. The large coal mines in northwest New Mexico are polluting the San Juan River now, and could continue to do so for hundreds of years if they are not properly dealt with soon.
There are many weaknesses in how mines are built, managed, permitted and regulated that contribute to the problem. One aspect is bonding.
Bonding is basically an insurance policy that is designed to cover the cost of stopping the pollution and cleaning it up, when and if things go wrong. The bond is paid for by the person or company that undertakes the operation, ensuring the cost of cleaning up a mess is borne by those who make it.
Bonds are required for virtually any mining or oil and gas activity. The problem is, they are not sufficient to deal with some of the problems that arise, nor are they sufficient to act as deterrents to risky behavior.
The deterrent aspect of bonding is important. If the owners/operators know they will have to cover the full cost of any needed cleanup, the design and management of the site will most likely be more cautious. If they can leave all, most or even some of the cost for others, usually the taxpayers, to handle, some operators will take undue shortcuts.
Current estimates of the cost of handling the legacy of old hard-rock mines range from $32 billion to $72 billion. The situation at “modern” mines is even worse because they tend to be much larger. Just the cost of treating the polluted water at 40 such mines is between $50 million and $70 billion per year.
For oil and gas operations, the situation is similar. The bonds required leave the taxpayers at risk of needing to pay billions of dollars to reclaim the land, properly plug problem wells and clean up when things go wrong.
The problems of water pollution around Silverton are complex. The technical issues of how and where to treat the water and the costs of building, but even more so, operating and maintaining the treatment facilities, deserve the community dialogue they are receiving.
We also need to ensure we learn the lessons of lax oversight and insufficient bonding to help prevent similar situations elsewhere.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.