In the midst of declining fresh water supplies, an increasing number of hard rock mining companies are causing water pollution that will last for hundreds or thousands of years, says a new report published yesterday.
The report by the mining watchdog group Earthworks, reveals that an estimated 17 to 27 billion gallons of polluted water will be generated by 40 existing hardrock mines (e.g. gold, copper, uranium mines) in the US each year, every year, in perpetuity. It says water treatment for these mines will cost as much as $67 billion per year.
Perpetual management of mines is a rapidly escalating national dilemma as several new mining projects are being planned across the United States. Yet, the enormous and increasing water use at mines has gone almost unnoticed, says the report titled, “Polluting the Future: How Mining Companies are Contaminating Our Nation’s Waters in Perpetuity.” The report, also reveals that four proposed mines could additionally pollute for perpetuity, another 16 billion gallons of water a year.
“The scale of the problem is enormous, and growing,” says Bonnie Gestring, Earthworks northwest organizer and author of the report. “Every year, mines will pollute enough water to fill 2 trillion water bottles — enough bottles to reach to the moon and back 54 times.”
The report uses analysis of government data to show, for the first time, the staggering amount of US water supplies that are perpetually polluted by mining. Gestring defines “in perpetuity” as water pollution that will continue for hundreds or thousands of years, or for which government agencies can’t predict a point at which water quality standards will be met without treatment.
“Agriculture, energy development, municipalities and fish and wildlife are already competing for increasingly scarce water resources,” says Gestring. “The difference is, when these mines ‘use’ water, they pollute it forever.”
The primary cause of this lasting pollution is acid mine drainage. Mining exposes sulfide-bearing ore that generates sulfuric acid and mixes with water. This outflow of acidic water, otherwise known as acid mine drainage, contaminates drinking water aquifers, lakes, and streams, agricultural lands, and prime fish and wildlife habitat. Because acid mine drainage can’t be stopped, once started it must be treated until the acid generating material runs out. As acknowledged in government mining permits, this can take hundreds or thousands of years.
“No hard rock open pit mines exist today that can demonstrate that acid mine drainage can be stopped once it occurs on a large scale,” says Dr. Glenn Miller, professor of environmental science at the University of Nevada.
Equally alarming is the growing number of mine pits, containing large volumes of contaminated water. Although they are often referred to as pit “lakes,” these mine pits generally contain polluted water that presents a permanent hazard to public health and wildlife. The problem is at its worst in Nevada, where it has been determined that mine pits from gold mines will contain more water than all of the fresh water reservoirs in the state, excluding Lake Mead.
To top it off, record high metal prices are driving proposals for new mines across the country. Both mining companies and government agencies consider at least four mines that are currently proposed at high risk of causing perpetual pollution. These include the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, which threatens the nation’s largest wild salmon fishery, the Donlin Creek mine in Alaska, the Northmet Project in northeastern Minnesota, and the Rock Creek mine northwestern Montana.
“We simply shouldn’t permit a mine at high risk for perpetual pollution, when it’s proposed in the midst of the nation’s most valuable wild salmon fishery,” says Gestring. “It’s simply unfair and irresponsible to pass that legacy along to the many communities and businesses that rely on the fishery for their livelihoods.”
At a whopping $57-67 billion per year, the cost of water treatment is considerable, and will be shouldered by the American taxpayer if the mining company is unable or unwilling to pay to clean up the toxic mess. The long-term public liability is enormous, as taxpayers are expected to pay for centuries of water treatment – long beyond the expected life of any mining corporation. At least 62 percent of the mines (25 out 40) causing perpetual pollution in the US are located partly on public lands.
As state and federal mining regulations are simply not equipped to address the lasting consequences to our water resources, Gestring said new policies are needed to ensure the responsible development of our mineral resources, and to protect against decisions that result in permanent harm to our nation’s waters.