Mr. Larson is an associate professor of law at Arizona State University.
Private mining companies have already shown they are better equipped to deal with the mess.
Images of the bright-yellow Animas River in Colorado, fouled by millions of gallons of toxic wastewater accidentally released from an abandoned mine by contractors working for the Environmental Protection Agency last week, prompt a serious question: Why was the EPA even managing this waste in the first place? Mining companies that have the skills and experience to clean up such sites should be doing this work.
The abandoned Gold King Mine at the center of the EPA’s recent debacle is not unique. There are more than 557,000 abandoned hard rock mines in 32 states throughout the country. These sites often have been inactive for decades, and the responsible party either no longer exists or cannot be found. Abandoned mines can have devastating effects on the environment, and mismanaging them can lead to catastrophic spills like the one in the Animas River.
Acids, heavy metals and toxic sediments from these spills can persist for years, preventing use of the water and harming agriculture, fishing, wildlife and recreation.
Mining companies—such as Freeport McMoRan, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto Group—are far better equipped than the EPA to deal with abandoned mines. These companies have access to the best technologies, employ the best and most experienced experts, and can often improve the environment while making these sites economically productive again.
For example, in 2007 under a deal with the EPA related to a new mining operation outside Globe, Ariz., Carlota Copper Co. cleaned up pollution from nearby Gibson Mine, which had been abandoned for more than a century.
Gibson Mine became part of a productive facility again, with state-of-the-art environmental protection measures. The cleanup resulted in improved water quality in Pinto Creek, which had suffered decades of pollution from the abandoned mine.
Why, then, do we rely on the EPA to clean up abandoned mines? To answer this question, consider the outrage directed at the EPA in the wake of the Animas River spill. If this same disaster had occurred at the hand of a mining company, the firm and its leaders would face a public relations nightmare, and perhaps a legal one.
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