Officials believe that there are somewhere around 500,000 abandoned mining sites in the western U.S. and probably over a million on the coal-rich Eastern states. Only a small number of these sites are actually logged into the official Bureau of Land Management database. And while modern-day mining operations are required to return the area back to its previous natural glory, there are thousands of old mines out there that were just abandoned in place, many with their vertical ventilation shafts and access points open to the world. Some fill with water and become the local swimming hole for teens and kids while others send people falling thousands of feet to their death.
What is the government doing about this? Not much. Between the sheer number of old mines out there and the high cost of reclamation (one person testified at a Congressional Hearing that it would cost $32 - $72 billion to clean up just the abandoned hardrock mines in the United States), the government is a bit overwhelmed.
Why does reclamation carry such a high cost? It isn't just the old holes and access tunnels that must be filled in or covered with impenetrable metal slabs. Any old equipment and buildings must be removed and the area physically scrubbed down to remove any sign that humans had been there.
Also, there is an environmental side that must be addressed to. The piles of old rubbish and dirt from the mine, also called "tailings", must be removed. This is where things get trickier (and more expensive).
Many tailing piles include toxic elements that can harm the environment if handled incorrectly. It doesn't help that the US government's Clean Water Act levies huge penalties are against anyone who allows such toxic material to drip into surrounding drinking water reservoirs. These huge fines keep many reclamation companies from touching such tailing piles.
In response to the physical and environmental concerns of abandoned mining sites on public lands, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) created the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program. Their task is to clean up contaminated sites that are on public lands, like national parks and reserves, and sequester tailings that can’t be removed safely. Since 2000, the BLM has cleaned up approximately 2,700 old mining sites, but that's only a drop in the bucket compared to what is really out there.
The U.S. Geological Survey has also jumped into the fray, creating the Abandoned Mine Lands Initiative which is tasked to assist the BLM in identifying those abandoned mines on or near public land that would have the most effect on our water supply. Their two pilot "watershed approach" projects, the Upper Animas River watershed in Colorado and the Boulder River watershed in Montana, helped the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and other stakeholders to design and implement remediation activities for those area.
Of course, the responsibility for cleaning up these old sites shouldn't rest solely on the government's shoulders. When they can, officials go after the owners of the old sites, demanding that they clean up the mess or at least pay for part of it. This can't always be done – many sites were created and abandoned decades before regulations came into effect requiring the tracking of mine owners and operators.
To help cover the cost of cleaning up current and long abandoned mines, the government now requires any company currently mining in the United States to kick in money to the Environmental Protection Agency's superfund. Though these fees don't cover all of the costs of cleaning up the mining company's mess, it is a start in the right direction.
To prevent such environment disasters in the future, the Department of the Interior created an award for excellence in reclaiming land following coal surface mining. This has helped to motivate companies to becomes more creative in how they operating their mining sites. Some clean up as they go while others design building and sites so they can easily be removed or converted to something useful like lofts and retail space.
Though these tactics don't resolve all the current issues we have with old abandoned mines and their resulting environmental destruction, it is a step in the right direction in ensuring that our world is a better and safer place for our future generations.