In Inadequate Infrastructure Bill, Abandoned Mine Cleanup Program a Silver Lining

This week, Senators finally began to debate the highly-anticipated, hotly-debated bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF), which has been in the works for several months. Like many organizations, Earthworks expressed frustration that the BIF inadequately funds the desperate need to transition away from fossil fuels and address the climate crisis. A viral New York Times graphic demonstrates the stark discrepancy between President Biden’s $2.6 trillion original proposal and the $550 billion plan the Senate debates now. Next week, the Senate may move to consider a Budget Resolution to help fill these climate and justice funding needs. 

However, the BIF does include one major Earthworks priority: a hardrock abandoned mine lands  cleanup program, albeit funded by taxpayers, not by the responsible parties. New Mexico’s Senator Heinrich, with his colleagues Senators Daines of Montana and Kelly of Arizona, created a $3 billion program to help fund cleanup of the more than 140,000 known and an estimated 390,000 more abandoned mine features across many western states. These sites pose both environmental and physical safety hazards and mostly affect Indigenous, rural, and other disenfranchised communities. 

The law that governs hardrock mining in the U.S., signed in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant, explicitly encouraged colonization and settlement of what would become the western U.S. This colonization included murdering and displacing an untold number of Indigenous peoples in pursuit of minerals like gold and silver. Congress has never meaningfully updated the 1872 Mining Law and it continues to dictate mining on federal lands across the country. 

There is no reasonable comparison between modern and nineteenth-century mines: where the latter had groups of men working with pickaxes, the former annually releases more toxic pollution than any other industry, according to the EPA. Mine operators do not have to pay federal royalties nor pay reclamation fees, no matter how destructive the mining operation nor its effects. One unfortunate BIF provision is intended to speed the approval processes for this destruction. It is of course no coincidence that the mining industry threatens and harms some of the most marginalized populations in the United States: Indigenous peoples.  

We can and should acknowledge multiple truths in this situation: this cleanup fund is important and meaningful, and will have a tangible impact on communities near abandoned mines, and it is also placing the burden of cleaning up abandoned mines on taxpayers, not the people who actually caused the problem. This is a good first step, but it is just a first step: to comprehensively address the dangers of all public lands mines, Congress needs to reform the 1872 Mining Law to require community consent, royalties and reclamation fees, in addition to a host of other changes to this settler-colonial law. 

The BIF gives few reasons to celebrate, but this new hardrock abandoned mines cleanup program and another $4.6 billion allotted for plugging and remediating orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells are worth celebrating. Hopefully Congress will heed the concerns of the communities most impacted by the climate crisis when negotiating the reconciliation bill in the coming weeks.