US digs deep to clean up polluted mines

The US government is ploughing millions of dollars into the clean up of abandoned mines as part of a massive national economic recovery package.

President Barack Obama's $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes $3 billion for the Department of the Interior, which is set to funnel millions into the remediation of thousands of abandoned mines via three agencies - the National Park Service (NPS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service.

Ken Salazar, secretary of the interior, said last Tuesday: "With this bold initiative, we are making an investment in conserving America's timeless treasures, our stunning natural landscapes, our monuments to liberty, the icons of our culture and heritage, while helping working families and their communities prosper again."

Of the $3 billion total, $750 million is going to the NPS and $320 million to the BLM, with portions from each to be directed to polluted mine clean up.

Mr Salazar says work could begin soon.

"BLM, by itself, has a huge number of mines across the country that are already shovel ready to go and mines that could be remediated as soon as we give them the go-ahead," he said.

"We will be moving forward on that agenda as quickly as we can."

Supporters say the clean up programme will create hundreds of new jobs as workers, including contractors, engineers, are hired to clean up thousands of abandoned mines.

Daniel Esty, environmental advisor to Obama's presidential transition team and a former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official, said: "There is real value in putting people to work in ways that not only produce a paycheck but also long term value for the American public."

But others question if it is the best use of stimulus cash.

Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, said: "There are some environmental cleanups that clearly have long-term value, but others that clearly don't. Abandoned mines tend to be in pretty isolated areas where there's little human exposure to contaminants. My gut feeling is it's probably not a great investment."

Some 250,000 abandoned mines dot the American landscape, many former hardrock mines in the rural west.

Where once they drove regional economies, they have become eyesores and a massive environmental headache.

Wind and rain leaches toxic heavy metals from the leftover waste rock, contaminating waterways.

Estimates suggest some 12,000 miles of rivers in the West are contaminated with mining operation metals, with some fish stocks decimated as a result.

Cleaned up mines could then be put to use as renewable energy sites, including solar and wind facilities, being brownfield, away from population centres and already linked by roads and electricity lines.

For more details on the progress of the economic recovery plan visit the website

David Gibbs


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