EPA establishes office to focus on abandoned mine clean up in the West

September 8, 2020

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would establish a new office in Lakewood, CO that will focus on tracking and cleaning up abandoned mines in Western states.

The Associated Press reported that the office will have jurisdiction of all federal hardrock mine cleanup efforts west of the Mississippi River. The office was placed in Colorado so that it would be more focused on issues there and to combat environmental issues more directly and efficiently.
The Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains will steer and streamline projects to remediate acidic drainage, erosion, and other surface and groundwater contamination at the mining sites, the EPA’s associate deputy administrator, Doug Benevento.

“It’s going to, I think, make the (cleanup) work better and … more accessible to communities that have these issues,” said Benevento.

Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Director Misael Cabrera. He said he looks forward to “innovative yet practical solutions that respect local concerns.”

“I commend EPA for establishing a Western lands-focused office that will address the complex problems associated with hardrock mine cleanups,” Cabrera said of the office.

Environmental and tribal officials welcomed the announcement — but noted that it comes from an administration they said has pushed for more uranium mining and opened the door elsewhere to problematic mining operations.

“The Navajo Nation opposes any hard rock mining on or near the Navajo Nation,” said Oliver Whaley, director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency. “Obviously that’s something that hasn’t been the case with this (Trump) administration.”

But Whaley welcomed any move to clean up any of the many abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation, an environmental hazard the tribe has raised for years.

“The abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation need to be addressed at a lot faster rate than they currently are,” Whaley said.

Mineral-rich western states like Arizona, Colorado and Idaho have long benefited from hard-rock mining, including uranium mining, but those benefits have come at an environmental cost. Those include acid mine drainage and erosion that can lead to contamination of surface and groundwater and can damage surrounding habitats, among other problems.

Benevento said the EPA’s Superfund program — a 1980s law aimed at cleaning up toxic abandoned industrial sites by forcing responsible parties to either do the cleanup or reimburse the government for it — was initially designed for smaller, compact sites in Eastern states.

“What this office will do is it will bring a focus on how to address those larger (Western) sites,” Benevento said, citing the 63 Superfund mining sites across Western states today.

 

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