Nearly 150-Year-Old [U.S.] Federal Mining Law Could Need Update (Jefferson Public Radio – April 28, 2014)

The federal legislation that regulates mining for copper, zinc, gold and many other minerals was originally signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. In ways, the law reflects a 19th century view of natural resources: limitless and there for the taking.

Now, a legacy of pollution at tens of thousands of abandoned mines across the West is prompting an Oregon congressman to head a new effort to revise the General Mining Act of 1872.

Chris Cora of the Environmental Protection Agency stands on what used to be a mountaintop in the Umpqua River Basin of Southern Oregon. Now, it’s essentially a landfill “filled with waste rock and tailings,” Cora said. “There’s actually zinc ore in here. Well, it’s concentrated zinc, which is really bad for the environment,” he said.

The rubble in the area is what’s left after a mining operator blasted off the top of the mountain to get to deposits of copper and zinc. The company piled up the leftovers, covered them with plastic liner and soil, then abandoned the site. The liner soon failed.

Now, rainwater percolates down through the mining waste, picking up a toxic load of heavy metals and acid. Cora said that’s made the nearby creek uninhabitable for the region’s threatened coho salmon and other fish.

“It kills the bugs that they would eat. So the bugs can’t survive, so they have no food to forage on,” Cora said. “If they laid eggs, those eggs would just get neutralized. They can’t live in an acidic stream.”

Down the road, at the mouth of the old mine, a dilapidated system of culverts channels runoff from the mine onto the mountainside. Susan Lee, with the Bureau of Land Management, said the bright orange color staining the rocks is likely iron.

“There’s iron, zinc,” she said. “Arsenic levels are high on this site — a full complement of heavy metals.”

Lee explained that the water carried off by the culverts is less than half of what’s running off underground. Eventually, it all ends up in the creek. Estimates for cleaning up the site run to more than $15 million.

The Formosa Resources Corporation, a Canadian company, mined the site from 1989 until 1993 before closing shop. The firm has since gone out of business. That means the cost for cleaning up the toxic mess falls on the taxpayer. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., has a problem with that.

“We have thousands of abandoned sites like this across the western United States and we have virtually no budget to clean them up,” DeFazio said.

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