Gold King Mine spill stirs concerns about New Mexico's old mines

The Associated Press

SANTA FE — The ongoing fallout in New Mexico from last month's Colorado mine spill is a stark reminder that the "Land of Enchantment" has its own dangerous mines.

While public officials continue to measure the damage wrought by the Gold King Mine spill, some say it's a wake-up call to the staggering number of abandoned mines in New Mexico. The Bureau of Land Management so far has identified more than 13,000 abandoned mines in or around public land in the state, according to bureau records. Nearly 9,000 of them need to be analyzed, federal officials said.

Bill Auby, the head of the abandoned mines program for the BLM in New Mexico, said it will take a great deal of time to track these sites.

"It's going to be a long process to get to all the mining districts and wander the hills and find these things and identify them," Auby said.

He acknowledged that mines that have yet to be analyzed represent potential threats. The mines could have pits and standing water that have contamination from heavy metals.

Todd Brown, who operates a mining museum in Cerrillos, said he sees waste rock piles that have been piling up for decades. Abandoned mine sites are "a major problem in the West," according to Brown. And few people knew what restoring a mine site entailed.

"In the old days . they didn't even know what reclamation meant," Brown said. "And people die, and people move and people sell. That's why nothing ever got cleaned up."

An analysis of BLM data by the Santa Fe New Mexican found that 90 percent of the mines identified in New Mexico — or 11,750 — have not been remediated. According to the agency's reports, BLM officials found waste rock and tailings in 260 mines, including 20 in the Cerrillos Hills Mining District. The highest concentrated number of mines was found in the Hillsboro Mining District.

Some officials, however, say the state's arid environment lessens the possibility of pressurized water pushing out old mining waste like it did in the Colorado spill Aug. 5. The EPA accidentally unleased 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater while inspecting the idled Gold King Mine. As a result, toxic sludge made its way into the San Juan and Animas rivers.

Gov. Susana Martinez has promised at least $750,000 toward addressing the impact of the mine spill. Meanwhile, experts say there is not enough money to address the issue of the abandoned mines that New Mexico has.

Pete Dronkers, of the environmental nonprofit Earthworks, has been following hard-rock mining issues in the Southwest states. He said new mines that are vastly larger than the Gold King Mine are being built despite the risk of water-treatment liabilities and acidic runoff for years to come.

"And so the question is, `Who's going to pay for that in the future?"' Dronkers said. "It's basically like we haven't learned anything from Gold King, and we're going to continue to build mines that have that same fundamental problem. But we're going to build them thousands of times larger."

Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican,