Today, the nonpartisan Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) released a report, requested by then-Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and then-Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Chair Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), highlighting the need for improved reporting on total cleanup costs for abandoned hardrock mines on public lands. Currently, there are 22,500 known abandoned mine features on public lands that pose environmental hazards. GAO previously estimated that there may be hundreds of thousands more that have not yet been documented.
The report found that the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) spent a combined total of $119 million on abandoned hardrock mine cleanup in just four years alone (2017-2021). The agencies also reported that the cost to clean up remaining mines far exceeds the amount of funding available, but they have not yet provided exact estimates of those funding needs.
The full GAO report is available here.
"When foreign-owned mining companies dig up our public lands, take what they want, and then walk away scot-free from their mess, American taxpayers end up footing the massive bill to clean it up," said Ranking Member Grijalva. "What's even more disturbing, as this report shows, is that we don't know how much bigger that bill is going to get. I'm relieved that we have funds from President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help with these costs, but we need to change how these companies operate on public lands, so we can remediate this problem and hold companies accountable. I urge the agencies to follow the recommendations in this report, so we can have a better idea about how many more millions, or billions, we are going to need."
In its report, GAO made four recommendations to improve DOI's and USDA's reporting of total cleanup costs. Improved estimates of hardrock mine cleanup will help lawmakers make better informed decisions about the cleanup resources and programs needed in the future.
Hardrock mining on U.S. public lands is governed by the antiquated, more than 150-year-old Mining Law of 1872. Under this outdated system, mining companies--many of them foreign owned--have taken over $300 billion worth of minerals from public lands, while paying nothing in royalties to the American people.
In addition, our current mining laws fail to hold mining companies liable for the cost of cleanup once their mines are no long producing. Abandoned hardrock mines not only scar our public lands and impede future use, but they also pose multiple environmental and public health risks to surrounding communities. Abandoned mines are known to leak toxic chemicals, like arsenic, into nearby soil and waterways.
Last year, then-Chair Grijalva introduced the Clean Energy Mineral Reform Act alongside Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-Nev.). This bill would amend the 1872 General Mining Law to impose a federal minerals royalty, establish a Hardrock Minerals Reclamation Fund for the cleanup of abandoned mines, and require meaningful tribal consultation, among other important provisions.