Abandoned Mines Continue to Pollute the West

There are some 500,000 abandoned mines in the U.S., 20 percent of which are severely polluting nearby rivers and groundwater. Most of the mines are in the West, and the U.S. EPA estimates that 40 percent of all Western headwater streams are now polluted by abandoned hard-rock mines. Poisoned rivers mean trout numbers are declining across the region. The old mines also leach arsenic, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals into groundwater and fill the air in abandoned tunnels with poisonous gases. The mine owners are near impossible to find, if not dead. Laws hold would-be mine cleaners liable for any further pollution they may inadvertently produce, so nobody wants to take on cleanup tasks. A tax on coal producers doesn’t begin to cover the millions required for cleanup of mine pollution. “It’s a huge problem, the extent of which no one has a handle on,” said Russ Schnitzer of Trout Unlimited.