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The legacy of environmental damage from abandoned mines, and what America should do about it

On August 5, 2015, a spill at the Gold King mine near Durango, Colorado sent more than 3 million gallons of toxic water into the Animas River. As we explain in Burden of Gilt, the Gold King Mine is just one of the hundreds of thousands of inactive or abandoned mines throughout the West that require cleanup.

From the executive summary:

Hardrock mining has been a major industry in the United States for more than a century. But the industry has habitually failed to clean up after itself. As a result, more than half a million abandoned hardrock mines are scattered across the American landscape.

While the mining companies have been reaping the vast fortunes that hardrock mining has long bestowed, the burden of gilt — the degrading unreclaimed land abandoned by the mine operators — has been left to the public to deal with.

Abandoned mines are silent killers, threatening public safety and health and creating long-lasting environmental hazards. Toxic mine wastes endanger people downwind, destroy aquatic life downstream, and contaminate vital groundwater resources. Abandoned mines constitute an intolerable threat to the nation's future.

The time has come to attack this problem head-on. The nation needs a comprehensive national program to regulate currently active hardrock mines and prevent new abuses — and, to heal old wounds, the nation needs a Hardrock Abandoned Mines Reclamation (HAMR) program, administered jointly by the federal government and the states and funded by fees on hardrock minerals extraction nationwide.

Mineral Policy Center estimates that there are 557,650 hardrock abandoned mine sites nationwide and that the cost of cleaning them up will range from $32.7 billion to $71.5 billion. HAMR represents an opportunity to restore long-neglected mining lands and to create up to 10,000 jobs in communities suffering from the effects 01 the mining Industry's shrinking employment base.

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