Abandoned mines "ticking time bombs" in headwaters

Long abondoned mines pose serious environmental concerns in headwater basins across the country. Trout Unlimited photo.

By Warren Colyer

Last week American Fork Creek, a popular angling destination on Utah’s Wasatch Front, ran thick and black with toxic sediment—the legacy of a hundred years of hard rock mining in the headwaters of American Fork Canyon.

Last year, the mighty Animas River in Durango, CO, turned bright orange with iron and other metals after the Gold King Mine released decades of accumulated polluted water over the course of just a few hours.

Two years ago this month, the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia puked over 6 billion—yes, billion, with  a ‘B’—gallons of toxic sludge into a lake in the Fraser River watershed, decimating salmon populations that First Nations peoples had depended on for hundreds of years.

Leavenworth Creek in Colorado has flowed with mill slurry for the past century. Nothing grows on the surrounding toxic soil. Trout Unlimited photo.

In all three cases local communities were outraged. And surprised.

The fact is 40% of our headwater basins in the western U.S., and a similarly large number of watersheds in coal producing states in the East, have “time bombs” like these—abandoned mine tunnels and waste piles that tick away, leeching small amounts of toxic metals and acidic water into the very sources of our most iconic and important rivers.

And every so often something bad happens. Some ‘system’ fails. Chronic, unseen impacts become acute, and shockingly visible. People and governments and communities take notice. Raise an alarm. Become outraged. And rightfully so. But the fact is we should not be surprised by these disasters. There is one waiting to happen in almost all of our ‘home waters’.

The last century and a half was good for America’s mining industry. Millions of tons of gold, silver, copper and other metals were extracted from the mountains and valleys of western states, and – together with eastern coal – fueled the development and growth of this country. Some say copper from Butte, Montana, actually “won World War II”. Few would dispute mining was critical to the economic and political successes of our country, but we deferred many of the costs of that development…and now the bills are coming due.

Since 2004, TU has been working to defuse these headwater bombs, one at a time. With critical support from the Tiffany & Co. Foundation, and more recently from Freeport McMoRan and Newmont Mining Corp., we have made giant strides in tackling the problem. TU’s abandoned mine restoration projects in western states have improved water quality in over 50 river miles, restored 20 miles of stream and riparian habitat, and reconnected 21 miles of tributary streams and main stem rivers for native and wild trout.

 In Montana our projects have reconnected six different tributary streams, allowing native westslope cutthroat trout to re-establish populations in streams where they had not been seen for decades. In Idaho, our mine restoration projects have engaged over 6,500 children in education and service learning programs that teach them about watershed health, ecology and the legacy of mine pollution.

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources fisheries biologists search for live trout during a toxic sediment flow release on American Fork Creek in Utah. A 2-mile stretch of the river experienced a complete fish kill. Grant Bench/Trout Unlimited

In Utah we pioneered a new administrative tool that facilitates Good Samaritan (3rd party) abandoned mine clean-ups on the headwaters of American Fork Canyon. TU has become the leading authority on Good Samaritan abandoned mine restoration, and our Government Affairs staff are regularly called upon to offer Congressional testimony and to help draft legislation.  

However, despite all of this progress, the specter of abandoned mines remains a massive threat to our watersheds and fish that goes largely unnoticed…until  it doesn’t. The recent disasters, though brutal for the local communities, which they affect, are raising the profile of the problem, and highlighting the need for our work.

A heavy flow of toxic sediment was accidentally released during dam work on a reservoir on American Fork Creek. All the fish on two miles of the creek were killed. Grant Bench/Trout Unlimited

State and federal agencies in Montana, Colorado, and Idaho are stepping up to help fund clean-up projects. Legislators have introduced bills in both houses of Congress that would limit liability for Good Samaritan organizations like TU that want to clean up legacy mines. There is even talk of a royalty fund – much like exists for every other resource extraction industry – that would help pay for clean-ups.

The legacy of abandoned mines in this country is an imminent threat to our watersheds, streams and fish, but it has flown under the radar for a long time - TU is working to change that.

Warren Colyer is the Western Water and Habitat Program Director for Trout Unlimited. He can reached at wcolyer@tu.org


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