The Earth's Open Wounds: Abandoned and Orphaned Mines. (Focus)

By Fields, Scott | Environmental Health Perspectives, March 2003 | Go to article overview

The Earth's Open Wounds: Abandoned and Orphaned Mines. (Focus)


Fields, Scott, Environmental Health Perspectives


Some former mine sites are scars on the land: shafts and tunnels may or may not be boarded closed, and piles of waste rock dot the landscape. Other former sites appear harmless. Perhaps the slurry of ground rock "tailings" and water that once was waste from a mill pond has dried into a smooth field. Plants may have obscured or overrun much of the evidence of mankind's incursions into the Earth. But whether the land still appears raw or has begun to heal, dormant mine sites can be a source of myriad environmental hazards.

Some of the hazards are obvious. Old mine openings may be partially caved in or mine timbers rotted, presenting physical hazards. Carelessly scaled openings are irresistible to children and thrill seekers. Workings that underlie streets and buildings can collapse. Tailings dams, too, can collapse. Acid mine drainage (AMD)--acidified runoff--can contaminate streams, tinting them with the telltale orange sediment marking high concentrations of liberated iron.

Others hazards are hidden. Along with the freed iron often come other, less visible elements, including potentially toxic cadmium, copper, lead, manganese, zinc, arsenic, and mercury. High winds can carry dust contaminated with metals from tailings deposits and waste piles. Even ancient mining activities can release gases that make air unsafe to breathe--methane from coal mines, and carbon monoxide from so-called hardrock mines, where metals such as copper, silver, lead, cadmium, and zinc were extracted. Waters from uranium or phosphate mines can carry radiation well above normal background levels. "Each particular type of material being extracted will have its own associated set of ... potential environmental and health issues," says Geoffrey Plumlee, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research geologist.

Who's responsible for addressing these problems? For many of these abandoned mines there is no longer a company that can be held responsible for the environmental damages they cause. Some of these mines are hundreds of years old, and the companies that owned them are long gone. Others closed just a few years ago, but the mining company has either gone bankrupt or for other reasons isn't taking responsibility for mine cleanup. "It's not so much a question of who dropped the ball and who was breaking the law," says USGS scientist Thomas Chapin. "In many cases there were no laws [governing mine waste disposal] in the 1800s and 1900s, but these [mines] keep going and going and can keep polluting for many tens if not hundreds of years." In fact, abandoned Roman mines in Britain continue to discharge acidic waters today, after some 2,000 years.

Whether impacts are from a small long-forgotten sluicing site or a massive modern heap-leach operation, if the mine is abandoned, in the end it is government that shoulders the burden--the cleanup is funded, at least in part, by tax dollars. Although there is no good estimate of the cost to dean up abandoned mines, experts agree that in the United States alone the price tag reads tens of billions of dollars.

Defining the Terms

In the United States, mines that have been deserted and are no longer being maintained, and in which further mining is not intended, are called "abandoned" mines. Abandoned mines for which no owner or responsible party can be found are called "orphaned" mines. Outside the United States, the meanings of these terms are often reversed. For the purposes of this article, all mines that are closed and for any reason no company is taking responsibility are called "abandoned."

Sometimes the term "inactive" is used for mines that aren't currently being mined, but for which a known owner is still paying taxes. These mines may be reopened if the commodity can be produced at a profit; mines that have been abandoned or closed would not fall into this category.

Abandoned mines may be on property that is now owned by a third party without the resources to clean up contamination found there. …

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