Sep 03, 2020

Abandoned Mines Threaten Drinking Water

Officials are trying to determine the threat to drinking water created by abandoned hard rock mining sites or features 

abandoned mines

Federal and state officials are attempting to identify hundreds of thousands of rock mining sites or features scattered throughout the West that pose a threat to drinking water.

The Gold King Mine spill in Colorado, for instance, released pollutants that contaminated waterways in three states and the Navajo Nation, according to AP News. 

So far, hundreds of claims were filed against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As a result, Utah settled its lawsuit just this month with the federal agency over Gold King Mine.

In the agreement, the EPA said it would initiate a preliminary Superfund assessment for three sites in Utah, which include two former mining districts in Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons. These areas also happen to be home to hundreds of legacy mines, reported AP News.

According to AP News, mine debris and waste rock in those canyons have created problems for aquatic life due to contaminants like copper and cadmium. Zinc is also a threat to aquatic life in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

According to Erica Gaddis, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, the standard for cold water fisheries is much stricter because animals exist in the water 24/7. The contaminants are not testing at levels of concern for drinking water standards, however.

“I am concerned this is a problem that has been ignored for too long,” said Salt Lake County Councilman Richard Snelgrove. “There are a lot of questions and solutions are long overdue. I am pleased that the EPA is looking at this as a potential Superfund cleanup site. It is obvious that not all is well in that canyon.”

The Bureau of Land Management estimates that based on current staffing and resources, it will take 500 years for the agency to complete an inventory of abandoned hard rock mines and features.

According to EPA estimates, based on current databases, there are more than a half million abandoned hard rock mining sites on BLM, National Park Service and Forest Service lands.

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