Western Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Program

Abandoned Mine Pollution – Ticking Time Bombs in our Home Waters

Many places in the western United States, from the Rocky Mountains to the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges, have a rich mining heritage. With it comes a legacy of abandoned mines that degrade the water quality in streams and rivers and pose a risk of catastrophic spills and blowouts.

The damage can happen in an instant: streams and rivers discolored and choked with toxic wastes; fish and other aquatic life killed off; local communities threatened with poisoned water supplies and a devastated economy.                 Water running thick with contaminated sediment from a mine tailings area.

Recently we've seen three high-profile examples of this devastation: 

  1. In 2016 American Fork Creek, a popular angling destination on Utah’s Wasatch Front, ran thick and black with toxic sediment. All the fish in two miles of the creek were killed. This heavy flow of toxic sediment was accidentally released during dam work on a reservoir where mine waste sediment had settled—the legacy of a hundred years of hard rock mining in the headwaters of American Fork Canyon.
  2. In 2015 the mighty Animas River in Durango, Colorado, turned bright orange with iron and other metals after the Gold King Mine blew out, releasing decades of accumulated polluted water and sediment over the course of just a few hours. The orange sludge temporarily affected the Navajo Nation and other downstream communities dependent on this water for livestock and irrigation, as well as other uses. This mine and others continually discharge contaminated water into the Animas; it's just not as visible as a deluge of orange sludge all at once.  
  3. In 2014 the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia dumped over 6 billion 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 (for a visual of the impact, check out this short YouTube video: The Mount Polley Mine Disaster Two Years Later ).

Contaminated sediments pollute streams and rivers and create barren areas where nothing grows.

These catastrophes are only a few dramatic examples of what is silently occurring at abandoned mine sites across the West, but at least 40 percent of our headwater basins have “time bombs” like these: abandoned mine tunnels and waste piles that tick away, leaching toxic metals and acidic water into the very sources of our most iconic and important rivers. The water may appear clear (and “clean”) until you take a closer look and realize that nothing is living in it or on the land it touches! Trout and other aquatic species are missing or struggling because they cannot survive in the toxic conditions. Downstream communities that depend on clean water for drinking and crop irrigation suffer.

Sometimes blowouts or spills occur and the chronic, unseen impacts become acute and shockingly visible; but we should not be surprised by these disasters. If you live in a western mountain state, there’s a good chance that there is an abandoned mine “time-bomb” somewhere near your home water.


TU’s Abandoned Mine Land Program 

Since 2004 TU has been working to defuse these headwater bombs, one at a time. With critical support from state, federal, and private partners - including the Tiffany & Co. Foundation, Freeport McMoRan, Inc., and Newmont Mining Corporation -  we have made giant strides in tackling the problem.

A few highlights of our accomplishments:

  • Cleaned up abandoned mine pollution at over 40 sites to restore streams and fish populations in 7 states.
  • Reconnected 6 headwater tributaries in Montana's Middle Clark Fork River, re-establishing native Westslope Cutthroat Trout where they had not been seen for decades. 
  • Re-established a wild trout population in one of the headwater tributaries of the Rio Grande River in Colorado.
  • Engaged over 6,500 children and volunteers in Idaho education programs that taught them about watershed health, ecology, and the legacy of mine pollution. 
  • Pioneered a new administrative tool with EPA that facilitates Good Samaritan (third party) abandoned mine cleanups.
  • Positioned TU as the leading authority on the policy and on-the-ground challenges and solutions surrounding Good Samaritan abandoned mine cleanup projects.

Despite our progress, the specter of abandoned mines remains a massive threat to our watersheds, fish, and communities that goes largely unnoticed. Raising public awareness and solving the technical challenges around cleaning up these messes is only part of the picture. There are also significant regulatory and funding obstacles to getting this work done. 


Partners are Key to Success - But Funding and Liability Challenges Slow Progress

TU partners with federal and state agencies to complete restoration projects within their land ownership boundaries and under their regulatory framework, but similar work on private properties brings additional liability concerns and challenges. To address these concerns, TU and other groups are working to pass Good Samaritan legislation to protect organizations like ours from perpetual liability so that we can pursue cleanup projects without risking financial ruin. Learn more about Good Samaritan legislation and our mine-related advocacy here

Volunteers plant vegetation along the newly reclaimed floodplain and stream channel in Ninemile Creek, Clark Fork River, MT - 2016.

State and federal agencies help fund mine restoration projects, but government programs are vulnerable to political shifts and budget wrangling, and seemingly always at risk of being eliminated. Past legislation has proposed establishing a royalty fund that would help pay for cleanups—the same kind of cleanup tool that exists for coal mining and other resource extraction industries. However, a royalty fund for hard rock mining does not yet exist and funding for abandoned mine projects is still very limited.

If you want to make a difference, please consider supporting our program and/or getting involved in a cleanup project. There are often volunteer opportunities through local chapters. 

Donations to TU’s AML Program are tax deductible. Please contact Warren Colyer (406-541-1193) to learn more.

To learn more about where we work and our projects, click here


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