Abandoned Mines: Close the Door on Public Hazards

Abandoned Mines: Close the Door on Public Hazards

With some 12,000 abandoned mines hiding in the hills and crags of San Bernardino County, federal legislation to clean and shutter these old work sites stands to make a big imprint on the local landscape.

The Abandoned Mine Reclamation Act of 2008, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein last month, would establish a fund to secure and clean the estimated 500,000 abandoned mines nationwide. Under the bill, the secretary of the interior would inventory sites mined for gold, silver, lead, minerals and precious gems, and establish priorities for cleanup.

Money for the program would come from fees on hardrock mining companies, which gives some reason to pause before whole-heartedly embracing the idea. Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt noted that the mining industry employs about 2,500 people in San Bernardino County.

We agree that no one should be put out of work by this legislation, but it hardly seems unfair to ask mining operations that extracted material valued at more than $980 million in 2000 to help clean up after themselves.

Currently, no royalties are paid by hardrock mining operations on federal lands, unlike coal, oil and natural gas companies that pay royalties up to 12.5 percent. Feinstein's bill would impose 4 percent royalties on existing hardrock mining companies and 8 percent on new operations. The bill also proposes a 0.3 percent reclamation fee on mining operations on tribal, local and private lands.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, old mines have contaminated 17 major watersheds in California alone. Arsenic and other pollutants used for metal and mineral excavation are known to seep into groundwater, threatening the quality of drinking water and agricultural crops.

And we simply cannot ignore the significant safety hazards the 47,000 abandoned mines in California pose to hikers, ATV enthusiasts and others who explore our state's magnificent hills and canyons.

Nearly two years ago, on April 7, 2006, a man exploring a mine with his 6-year-old son near Calico Ghost Town died after falling down a steep incline. Two weeks later, another man and his daughter discovered the same mine shaft. He also fell but, thankfully, survived.

The state and country are, sadly, rife with stories of accidental deaths and near-misses. Since 1999, more than 200 people died nationwide in accidents in abandoned mines, reports the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

An ongoing federal campaign to warn the public away from old mines is commendable, but we know that it sometimes takes more than signs and public-service announcements to protect people.

Sometimes you need to put your money where your mouth is. With Feinstein's bill, we can.