Abandoned mines continue to be one of the most vexing environmental issues affecting fisheries, water quality and human health in watersheds across the West. Historically, mining played a large role in settling the American West and building up the nation. However, its legacy – more than 500,000 abandoned hard rock mines with an estimated clean-up cost ranging from $36-72 billion – has persisted for the better part of a century with little progress. The lack of dedicated funding sources and burdensome liability have prevented Good Samaritans from engaging in abandoned mine clean-ups. However, the prospect of addressing these long-standing problems is significantly brighter today than it was just a few years ago.
A pioneering Good Samaritan clean-up in American Fork Canyon in Utah was completed in 2006. The liability relief document negotiated with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the American Fork work led to the issuance of a model CERCLA liability-relief document for future Good Samaritans to use in similar projects. This removes one of the major impediments that have prevented communities, watershed groups, conservation organizations, TU chapters, and others from undertaking abandoned mine clean-up projects.
The American Fork Canyon is located along Utah’s Wasatch Front between Salt Lake City and Provo. This spectacular canyon, which lies within the Uinta National Forest and encompasses the Timpanogos Cave National Monument, is one of Utah’s most popular recreation areas, with more than 1.2 million visitors annually. Mining for base metals in the North Fork of American Fork Canyon from the 1870s to the 1950s left hundreds of abandoned mine features on both National Forest and adjacent private lands. Abandoned mines on public land in the canyon were cleaned up by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1990s, but abandoned mines on private lands upstream continued to leach arsenic, zinc, and lead into the American Fork River at nearly 1,000 times the legal drinking water standard.
TU chose the Pacific Mine in the American Fork Canyon as the site for this pioneering work for several reasons. First, most of the Pacific Mine site – the portions on U.S. Forest Service land – had already been cleaned up, but pollutants continued to leach from the remaining tailings piles on adjoining private lands, affecting the native Bonneville cutthroat trout. Second, the high visibility location of the mine and proximity to major population centers and media markets would facilitate efforts to keep the abandoned mine clean-up issues in the public eye. Finally, the clean-up of the site had a high probability of success because the private landowner was highly supportive and TU was able to hire the retired U.S. Forest Service engineer who had completed the adjacent restoration projects on federal lands, to oversee the project.
TU worked with numerous partners to surmount the obstacles then faced by all private groups hoping to undertake voluntary Good Samaritan clean-ups: significant liability burdens under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), better known as the Superfund Law, and lack of dedicated funding for such work. TU negotiated with the EPA to craft an “Administrative Order on Consent” (AOC) document that sufficiently limited TU’s long-term liability burden. TU also worked closely with Senator Bennett (R-UT) to secure congressional earmarks in 2005 and 2006 totaling $150,000 to fund the majority of the clean-up expenses. Those funds were allocated through the U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service. TU collaborated closely with Snowbird Corporation, which provided both the necessary legal access agreements as well as significant in-kind support during the clean-up from their own heavy equipment crews. The U.S. Forest Service provided access and shared technical resources.
Phase 1 of the American Fork project was completed in the fall of 2005 under the authority issued by the first AOC. Under the direction of the TU project manager, equipment operators re-routed the existing road away from the mine waste piles and constructed barriers to keep recreationists off of the reclamation sites. The borrow site was also excavated, with clean fill being stockpiled next to the Pacific Mine for repository construction in 2006.
Phase 2 of the American Fork project took place in August and September 2006. Four contaminated mine sites—approximately 30,000 cubic yards of material— were consolidated in a permanent repository at the Pacific Mine site on Snowbird Corporation’s private property. Guardrails were relocated to prevent access to the repository by motorized all-terrain vehicles and an interpretive kiosk was erected describing the history of the site, detailing the remediation work, and giving credit to the partners.
The Pacific Mine clean-up in the American Fork Canyon was the first voluntary, non-profit-led abandoned hardrock mine restoration project in the West. In 2007, TU and its partners continued to capitalize on the attention and momentum created by the successful completion of this project, and received awards from the Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining and the EPA.
Perhaps one of the most enduring outcomes of TU’s abandoned mine remediation efforts is the development of a model Good Samaritan liability agreement for abandoned mine clean-ups by the EPA. In the wake of the success of the American Fork project, several members of Congress introduced legislation in 2006 addressing liability concerns resulting from private abandoned mine cleanups. The bills varied in their approaches, but all sought TU’s input and support as one of the most credible and effective organizations dealing with this issue. However, the proposed bills stalled. The EPA decided that this issue was too important to give up, and determined that they could achieve the same end through administrative, rather than legislative means. The EPA released the model documents, based to a great extent on the agreement negotiated with TU, to the media and the public in June of 2007. This significantly lowers a major hurdle for groups to engage in voluntary Good Samaritan clean-ups of abandoned mine sites.