The Forest Service estimates that there are approximately 38,000 abandoned or inactive mines on National Forest System lands. The majority of these mines are found in western states. Around 7,600 of the mines pose a significant threat to the health of the surrounding environment or communities in the watershed. An unknown number of the remaining mines may pose a safety risk to hunters, anglers, and other outdoor enthusiasts due to dilapidated structures and mine openings.
The Forest Service began receiving funds to clean up abandoned mines and other sites contaminated with hazardous materials following the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA or “Superfund”) in the early 1980’s. Funding of around $22 million per year currently comes from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Forest Service -Minerals and Geology, Engineering, and Watershed Programs.
The Forest Service manages abandoned mine reclamation through the Environmental Compliance and Protection (ECAP) and Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) programs. The nine Forest Service regions compete for badly needed funds by submitting proposals directly to the Washington office where a committee of 6 Forest Service representatives ranks and allocates funding. Projects are ranked according to their impact on human health and safety, environment protection, public/private partnerships, and public interest.
Since 1998, the Forest Service has eliminated over 400 physical safety hazards and 150 mine sites involving hazardous waste through CERCLA. Unfortunately, their funding continues to decrease, making it unlikely that they will reach an ambitious goal they set in 1995: “To reclaim by the year 2045 all abandoned mine site on National Forest System lands that have the potential to release hazardous substances or sediment.”