Dronkers: Public shouldn't pay for mine disasters

Pete Dronkers
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For many of us, the image will forever be burned into our memories: the Animas River turned a sickly mustard color.

Friday marked the one-year anniversary of the Gold King Mine spill, which sent more than 3 million gallons of acidic, metals-laden wastewater into the river in Colorado and ultimately into the San Juan Basin in New Mexico. The spill damaged agricultural lands, recreation-based businesses, fish and wildlife habitat, and the cleanup costs are expected to be in the tens of millions.

This is not the way I would have picked to unite communities of southwest Colorado with those of northwestern New Mexico behind a common cause, yet with it comes opportunity. We have faced the disaster together, bearing the cost to our water, our economy and our way of life. We know better than most the perils of poorly regulated mining. Indeed, strategies to enact change should be approached together for the best results.

A year has passed, and it’s time to take stock and ask what’s being done to address the underlying problems of abandoned and inactive mines. Has anything changed? The answer is yes, and no. Taxpayers are still paying the clean-up cost for the spill, not the mining company, but we have a golden opportunity (no pun intended) to put the burden for mining accidents back where they belong: on the companies doing the digging. 

The problem is straight-forward. The laws and regulations that govern mining are inadequate and out-of-date.  As a result, there isn’t enough money to clean up these sites, and too often mining corporations are allowed to walk away from their responsibilities.  And even after the lessons of the past, we still allow mining companies to build mines we know will pollute forever.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency inherits the nation’s most toxic sites through the Superfund program, formally known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA, it does not have the authority to require mining companies to demonstrate that they have the funds, up-front, to clean up the hazardous materials they generate. As a result, inactive mines like the Gold King Mine are often left to fester for years until they become a toxic disaster.

Now the good news: the EPA is drafting new rules to update the Superfund law, which will be released to the public for comment by Dec.1. The rules would allow the agency to ensure that companies prove they have the funds, in advance, for hazardous waste cleanup at their mines.

This is a long overdue requirement of the original Superfund program. Decades of bureaucratic red tape and lobbying by the mining industry have kept it from being implemented, but a federal appeals court has ordered the agency to get it done.

It’s high time. These rules are needed to shift the burden of cleanup where it belongs. And, the rules should specify that the cleanup funds are backed by predictable, secure funds, not by empty promises.

There are hundreds of thousands of abandoned and inactive mines across the west, and the EPA has estimated the backlog of cleanup costs for metal mines at a whopping $24 billion to $45 billion — and counting. These common-sense requirements will stop the bleeding, protecting American taxpayers against more expensive cleanup bills.

The time has come to hold mining companies accountable for cleanup and provide important incentives to use best practices. When their own money is on the line, there’s a good chance that the mining industry will manage its waste more responsibly.

It shouldn’t take a mine disaster like Gold King to put in place common-sense taxpayer protections, but I hope we use this opportunity to fix one of the underlying problems once and for all — and prevent the next spill before it happens, or at least ensure taxpayers don’t have to pay to clean up the mess.

Because those of us who have lived through it know: our lands, water and wallets deserve better.

Pete Dronkers works for the non-profit conservation organization Earthworks in southwest Colorado.