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GAO: Taxpayers On The Hook For Cleaning Up The West’s Abandoned Mines

An inspection of an abandoned mine in Lemhi County, Idaho, before the opening was permanently closed.
Idaho Department of Lands
An inspection of an abandoned mine in Lemhi County, Idaho, before the opening was permanently closed.

A new government watchdog report published Wednesday says taxpayers are shouldering the burden of cleaning up the nation’s thousands of abandoned hardrock mines on public lands.

The Government Accountability Office found that federal agencies spent $2.9 billion between 2007 and 2018 cleaning up abandoned hardrock mines. Private companies like former owners only reimbursed about $1 billion of that.

The agencies spent the most money—nearly $480 million—in Montana over the 10-year period. They also spent more than $100 million on Mountain West States like Idaho ($298 million), Colorado ($275 million) and Wyoming ($102 million).

And officials from Western states estimated spending an additional $117 million in non-federal funds over the course of the decade to clean up abandoned hardrock mines.

Most of that money was spent addressing environmental hazards like contaminated water.

Public lands agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency identified at least 140,000 abandoned mine features, such as tunnels, but agency officials said there could be more than 390,000 additional abandoned mine features on federal lands not in their databases.

The feds and state governments don’t have the resources to deal with them as quickly as they’d like. The GAO’s Anne-Marie Fennell said some non-profits shy away from helping clean up the mines because of legal liability.

“Even if these ‘good samaritans,’ as they’re known, were to come in and they were not the cause of the contamination, they may be in a situation where the entire cost of addressing the contamination may fall upon them,” Fennell said.

Find reporter Madelyn Beck on Twitter @MadelynBeck8

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public RadioThis story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.


Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Madelyn Beck
Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. She's from Montana but has reported everywhere from North Dakota to Alaska to Washington, D.C. Her last few positions included covering energy resources in Wyoming and reporting on agriculture/rural life issues in Illinois.
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