Hard-Rock-Mining Law for West Digs into Long Legacy of Abuse Congress to Take Up Environmental Threat from Abandoned Mines

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WHEN Congress and the administration tackle one of the most contentious natural-resource issues this fall, they'll have more than 120 years of history to deal with.

The issue is hard-rock mining in the West, which carries with it a legacy of old mines that pollute the environment.

"Abandoned hard-rock mines have sterilized rivers and streams, contaminated drinking-water supplies beyond use, and killed countless numbers of fish and wildlife," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said recently.

"We need a cleanup program now," asserts Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. "Water tables, lakes, and rivers are being devastated by heavy metals and acids from abandoned mines. The longer we wait, the more costly the damage becomes."

The extent of the problem and what to do about it are subjects of strong argument. In their recent comments, Mr. Babbitt and Mr. Miller were responding to a report from the Mineral Policy Center regarding some half-million mines "that scar the American landscape" - including the pollution of 12,000 miles of waterways and 180,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs. The center is a private research and lobbying group that urges reform of the 1872 Mining Law, which governs Western hard-rock mining since the time when equipment consisted mainly of a dusty burro and pickax.

Cleaning up abandoned mines, the Mineral Policy Center's "Burden of Gilt" report estimates, will cost between $32 billion and $71 billion. This includes some 50 mines included on the "Superfund" program's National Priorities List of most dangerous toxic-waste sites.

One such mine is Iron Mountain along the Sacramento River in California, reportedly the largest source of copper found 300 miles downstream in San Francisco Bay. Other mines are Clark Fork sites near Butte, Mont., which could cost nearly $1 billion to clean up, according to a recent study by Miller's committee.

Industry experts say mine critics are blowing the issue of old polluting mines out of proportion to force reform of the 1872 law.

"The key question is whether, and the extent to which, any of these sites pose significant environmental threats," Graham Clark, senior vice president and general counsel of the Newmont Mining Corporation, told Miller's committee earlier this summer. "The answer is that no one really knows. That is why the mining industry has emphasized that there needs to be an inventory to identify inactive unreclaimed sites that pose significant environmental or safety risks. …