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THE NATION

'Ominous' threat posed by old mines

Government workers were warned by bosses to ignore any problems at abandoned sites, a new report alleges.

July 26, 2008|Vimal Patel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Abandoned mines in California, Arizona and Nevada have "ominous" potential for causing more deaths, and government supervisors have ordered staffers to ignore the problems, according to a new report by the Interior Department's inspector general.

Based on visits to more than 45 abandoned mines, the report concludes that dangerous levels of contaminants such as arsenic, lead and mercury are present at sites easily accessible to the public.

It also says that several adults and children have fallen to their deaths in abandoned mines that often remain uncovered.

"The potential for more deaths or injuries is ominous," the report states. The office said a "limited search" of accident records showed that 12 people were killed at abandoned mines from 2004 to 2007.

"Growth of the population and use of off-road vehicles in the West will increase the likelihood of additional deaths or injuries," the report says.

It states that Bureau of Land Management supervisors, apparently worried about liability and cost, told staff members to ignore these problems and that employees "were criticized or received threats of retaliation" for identifying contaminated sites.

The bureau declined an interview but released a statement Friday in response to a question from The Times.

"Threats or intimidation of employees will not be condoned or tolerated," the statement said. "In any specific case where the BLM management is made aware of such allegations, we will act to investigate and address the matter."

It added: "The BLM accepts the recommendations and will work diligently to implement them."

The National Park Service, which also is responsible for managing abandoned mine sites, declined to comment Friday afternoon, stating that officials had just begun to look at the report, which was released late Thursday.

"They couldn't state it more frankly that there's an urgent need for action," said Velma Smith, manager of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, which has been urging lawmakers to pass legislation to address mine health and safety concerns. "They have a greater responsibility in light of this report."

The hard-rock mining industry for minerals such as gold, silver and lead is largely governed by the General Mining Law of 1872, which created a process for the public to explore, claim and mine public lands.

The legislation was meant to promote settlement of the West. Advocates of change see the law as outdated.

"We're talking about a toxic legacy of older mining when there weren't any environmental regulations," said Mike Thornton, mining project community organizer for the Sierra Fund, based in Nevada City, Calif. "Certainly, the environmental regulations that are in place now would have went a long way to prevent this disaster we're currently in from happening."

Congress in 1976 passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which improved federal management of mining and its safety and environmental effects.

However, historical mining activity left "hundreds of thousands of unmitigated abandoned mine sites," according to the report.

It's unclear exactly how many abandoned mines exist. The California Department of Conservation estimates about 47,000 in the state. Some estimates put the number nationwide as high as 500,000.

The inspector general's report says that several employees informed investigators about "threats against their careers" for reporting abandoned mine sites. One employee was told by a field office manager not to identify abandoned mine sites because it distracted from other land management activities.

"Another employee stated that putting sites on an inventory was more detrimental to BLM than leaving them off, because listing them acknowledged a hazard and therefore created a potential liability," the report states.

The report says that abandoned mines pose dangers including deadly gases, asphyxiation, collapsing walls, explosive and toxic chemicals, and rotting structures.

It recommends temporary measures such as more fencing and signs and more costly permanent measures including adding steel and concrete covers.

In 2006, the report states, BLM identified dangerous levels of arsenic contamination at the Rand Mining District near Ridgecrest, Calif. -- levels thousands of times higher than recognized as safe by the EPA.

"BLM had known about this potential contamination for decades but had never taken samples to assess the danger to the public," the report says. "We confirmed these serious environmental hazards and also found numerous physical safety hazards. These hazards were endangering the residents of Randsburg and Red Mountain as well as thousands of off-road-vehicle recreationalists who routinely visit the area."

But the cleanup of the district alone could exceed $170 million. A nationwide cleanup could cost $50 billion, according to Smith, of the Pew campaign.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation that would require mining firms to pay a 4% royalty on existing mining operations and 8% on new ones, with the revenue going to an abandoned-mine cleanup fund, but the bill stalled in the Senate after the House passed its version.

"Bottom line: This report is a clarion call to action," Feinstein said in a statement. "We need to move swiftly [to] clean up these abandoned mines."

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vimal.patel@latimes.com

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