Abandoned Mine Sites


Abandoned Mines Sites (AMS)

In 2009 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reported that there were 25,281 abandoned mine sites (AMS) in the United States, of which only 20% had been remediated, or plans formulated for remediation. This is in stark contrast to estimates produced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who have identified over 200,000 AMS. Even this figure is modest compared to the 557,650 AMS reported by the Mineral Policy Center (MPC). The suggested truth is that a complete inventory of abandoned mine sites does not exist.
Remediation costs for these AMS is also in dispute and estimates range from four to thirty-five billion dollars by the BLM, to thirty-three to seventy-two billion dollars by the MPC. What can be agreed upon is that many billions of dollars and decades of time will be necessary to identify and reclaim every site. In July of 2008 an audit report was published by the office of the Inspector General, United States Department of the Interior. This was the result of a yearlong investigation into the public health and safety hazards from AMS on BLM and National Parks Service (NPS) lands in Arizona, Nevada, and California. The study focused on sites where dangerous physical and environmental conditions have resulted in human injury and death,
Although Nevada and California have had the greater number of AMS accidents, Arizona is well represented. It was only in the 1970's that the incidents became newsworthy. During that decade a man from Fort Huachuca disappeared during a trip from Tombstone, and was considered to have fallen into one of the many unprotected old shafts in the area. On another occasion a group of teenagers upended their jeep into a mineshaft north of Phoenix.
In the 1980's a teenager fell into an open shaft, while exploring an adit with a group of friends. His body was recovered from the water 200 feet down. During that same period a young man was rescued after falling in an open shaft near Gleeson.
More recently, in September 2007 two young sisters driving their ATV off a trail near Chloride dropped into an open shaft, falling 125 feet. One girl was killed. The other injured sister spent the night at the bottom of the shaft until rescued. The following January Tyler Halverson stepped back a few feet from a campfire near Cave Creek and dropped into an abandoned mine shaft. He died from the resulting injuries. In September, one of a group of illegal aliens crossing the border near East Montezuma Canyon fell into a mineshaft suffering leg and back injuries. Near Douglas in December another Mexican national fell into a shaft, breaking his hip. The year 2009 recorded no AMS deaths. In March an elderly man dropped fifteen feet to a ledge in an open shaft, saving him from an additional one hundred foot drop. Finally, in August a young man overturned his truck into a twenty-foot shaft near Lake Pleasant dam.
The hazards associated with AMS, apart from unprotected open shafts are many. They include dilapidated and rotting structures, open adits and prospecting pits. Environmental hazards include airborne and waterborne contaminants from abandoned workings, tailing ponds and piles of waste rock. Many of these emit dangerous concentrations of arsenic, lead, mercury, and other toxic chemicals. In some situations, near uranium deposits, high levels of radiation are a concern.
The disparity between the AMS inventory estimates of the BLM, as compared with those of the other agencies can be explained, in part by the perceived attitude of the BLM toward this problem. The Inspector General's 2008 audit report was critical of the BLM after interviewing seventy-five employees from thirteen BLM regional offices. The consensus was that the BLM, and to a lesser degree the NPS, were not dealing with the hazards of AMS in their jurisdictions, thus putting public health and safety at risk. They determined that many dangerous BLM sites were unprotected and lacked warning notices. Other sites with dangerous levels of contaminants were easily accessible by the public. The interviews revealed that in many cases BLM employees were encouraged not to report unsafe AMS conditions and were in some cases criticized or threatened for identifying contaminated sites. The perceived rationale was fear of admitting potential liability and the overall problem of underfunding.
The Saginaw Hill property near Tucson, Arizona is a good example of the BLM's inattention to hazardous AMS. In March, 2005 an Inspector General audit was set up to evaluate BLM processes and procedures, and to track and priortorize AMS. Saginaw Hill was the locus for mining activity from the late 1800's to the mid 1900's. Two contaminated areas were identified in the audit as well as eighteen dangerous mine shafts. A group of houses and an elementary school are situated within a mile of the contaminated areas, which were easily accessed by a path. Four environmental assessments of the property between 1988 and 2005 tested toxic levels of lead and arsenic. Two of these assessments done by Pima County prompted them to urge the BLM to carry out a comprehensive study, inform the National Response Center of the results, and make nearby residents aware of the potential health hazards. The BLM failed to respond, beyond filling in five dangerous shafts, until November 2004, when the community was notified. Their failure to notify the National Response Center was in direct defiance of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. The Inspector General's audit of 2005 recommended that the BLM immediately notify the NRC of the contamination, inform the public of site conditions, take steps to prevent public access to the area, conduct inspections and identify all physical hazards with risk and mitigate the hazards, and assess other lands with hazardous sites in close proximity to populated areas. Finally by January 2006 the BLM had initiated action on these recommendations.
It is not surprising that so many abandoned mine workings exist in Arizona. There is evidence that earth products such as clay, coal, and turquoise were extracted and used in this area as early as 1000 BC. The sixteenth Century influx of gold-seeking Spaniards resulted in the development of small gold and silver mines. Decreased production from the California goldfields in the mid-1800s brought many of the forty-niners to Arizona to seek their fortunes. Subsequently, toward the end of the century silver and copper became important. Over the years many small mines have been developed until the ore values ran out, resulting in abandonment of the workings without any attempt to restore the ground and minimize the danger. It has been estimated by the Arizona State Mine Inspector's (ASMI) office that over a million mining claims have been filed in Arizona since 1872. Of these, it is believed that up to 100,000 have been mined, resulting in abandoned mine openings. The BLM figure of 25,281 abandoned mine sites (AMS) in the United States is a far cry from the ASMI's number for Arizona alone.
As a result of the increasing number of reported AMS accidents, the Arizona Legislature rewrote the laws pertaining to abandoned mines by increasing the penalties to owners who did not fence their mines and for anyone vandalizing existing fences or signs. In 1987 a two-year program was initiated under which student interns visited and evaluated the dangers of mines, subsequently informing the owners of their responsibilities. The recurring problem of underfunding spelled the demise of this effort. However, in 1992 a new student intern program was set up in conjunction with the BLM to inventory abandoned mines for the first five years on BLM lands. This was extended in 1997 to cover state-managed and privately owned lands through $30,000 of State funding. This money was earmarked for fencing and barricades. It was estimated that 9,900 abandoned mines had been visited and inventoried and 3,280 evaluated as of 2006.
An agreement between ASMI and the National Park Service (NPS) in 1996 is designed to properly close abandoned mines in national parks, monuments, and recreational areas. Through dealing by ASMI with local contractors mine closures at selected parks was undertaken, inaugurated by a fencing program at the Katherine Mine at Bullhead City. In 1999 the Abandoned Mines Safety Fund (AMSF) was approved by the Arizona Legislature. This fund was designed to encourage contributions from private groups to supplement legislative appropriations, to be used for the direct costs of work in dealing with public safety risks on State lands. About a hundred mine openings have been safeguarded by fencing, gating, and backfilling.
State deficits in 2002 forced elimination of the Abandoned Mines program and extreme curtailment of the AMSF.
Of the 3,280 evaluated sites, over 400 were considered as potential safety threats to the public. In 2006 only five of these sites were secured or closed as a result of insufficient staff and resources.
Over the period 2006 to 2009 over seventy-five public complaints were received by the ASMI pertaining to dangerous mine sites. Owners or lessees of the land in question are responsible for rectifying the problems. After a field investigation of the complaint area, the responsible parties are sent a warning letter requiring the submission of compliance plans in sixty days. If no plans are submitted, the matter is turned over to the prosecutor for that particular county for further action. The problem is that in most cases the owners or other responsible parties are impossible to identify. At that point the State is responsible for taking the proper action.
In 2008 the ASMI published three brochures aimed at informing the public of the dangers of abandoned mine sites. These include; "Safety Tips for Rockhounds"; "Child mine Accident Prevention Program" (a coloring book); and "Abandoned Mines; Stay Out and stay Alive'"
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been negligent and has put public safety at risk with their attitude and apparent lack of concern over the problem of the physical and airborne dangers associated with these abandoned mine sites. As a result of official criticism and public complaints the Arizona State Office initiated an 'Abandoned Mine Land Work Plan Period: FY2007 - 2013'. Four general mining areas were identified within the State. Their inventory identified 1,953 known abandoned mines on BLM lands, of which thirty-eight workings may impact water resources and 961 sites have dangerous physical hazards associated with them. This inventory supposedly covers the entire State, but it is admitted to be a patchwork of data, and that only 20% of BLM lands in Arizona have been covered with at least moderate accuracy. Several million acres have not been recently inventoried. Any proposed work on AMS is to be focused on high public use areas.
The National Parks Service, according to the Inspector general audit of 2008, has a better track record in dealing with AMS. Early in 2010 they announced plans to rectify health and safety concerns within the Coronado National Memorial, Grand Canyon National Park, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Most significant is the Grand Canyon area, where a history of asbestos and uranium mining has left hazards such as open shafts, loose rock falling from adit roofs, high radon concentrations, toxic metals, and asbestos fibers. The overall aim of the NPS is to correct health and safety hazards at these abandoned mine sites in order to reduce exposure of park visitors to dangers, while preserving natural and cultural resource values.
In some cases, private citizen groups have taken action to resolve these dangers locally. Recently, twelve members of the Havasu 4-Wheelers club fenced, erected signs, and inventoried workings at the old Pittsburg and Jupiter mines near Lake Havasu. They were thanked by the BLM.
Discussion - My View
Solving this problem will eventually rest on the shoulders of federal and local government agencies, and private volunteer groups. In the past it has all boiled down to insufficient funding and considerable lack of concern by the main federal agencies involved. The finger pointing that has taken place as to who is responsible for clean up is akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It is time for action, but in the real world, probably no positive sustainable results will be realized until some elected official falls down one of these holes.

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