- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2009

When the Beal Mountain mine opened in 1988 near Butte, Mont., its owner promoted open-pit cyanide leaching for extracting gold from ore as modern and environmentally friendly.

Pegasus Gold Corp., a Canadian company, extracted nearly 460,000 ounces of gold over the course of a decade before closing the mine and declaring bankruptcy in 1998.

It left behind a 70-acre, cyanide-contaminated leach pond with a leaky liner and tons of rubble that sends selenium-laced runoff into streams, threatening cutthroat trout and other fish. The $6.2 million reclamation bond posted by the company doesn’t come close to covering the full cost to clean up the mine, which could total nearly $40 million.

“There is a real ticking time bomb up there,” said Josh Vincent, president of a Trout Unlimited chapter near the mine, which sits on U.S. Forest Service land.

Efforts to clean up one of the West’s most enduring and dangerous legacies - tens of thousands of abandoned hard-rock mines, many dating to the 19th century - should get a boost from the economic stimulus bill awaiting President Obama’s signature.

The final bill, approved by the House and Senate on Friday, contains more than $1.5 billion for construction and maintenance projects in the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Forest Service. These funds will address pollution and safety hazards caused by abandoned mines on public lands.

The three agencies together spent about $25 million on mine cleanup in the budget year that ended Sept. 30, according to the staff of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, one of the lawmakers who sought the funding.

Projects ranging from repairing trails to replacing equipment also are eligible for the money, so there is no guarantee the money will be spent on mine cleanup. The bill specifies that it is supposed to go to projects that generate the most jobs.

Advocates for cleaning up abandoned mines say the work is a strong job generator.

“These much-needed funds will create thousands of jobs, reduce water pollution, eliminate public safety threats, and restore fish and wildlife habitat in rural communities across the country,” said Lauren Pagel, policy director for Earthworks, an environmental group focused on mining issues.

The Government Accountability Office estimates there are at least 161,000 abandoned hard-rock mines in Alaska and 11 other Western states, plus South Dakota. Open mine shafts and decaying structures pose safety hazards, while contaminants are polluting streams and groundwater, and piles of tailings tinged with arsenic have been left behind.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates it could cost as much as $50 billion to clean up all the nation’s abandoned hard-rock mines.

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