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Environmental Challenges in Mining

TestAmerica’s has more than 20 years of experience supporting site investigations, remedial investigations, mine closures and incident response services to events such as the Gold King Mine incident in Colorado, near the Animas River.

Current Mining Facilities

Environmental challenges exist throughout the life of a mine, from exploration to closure.  Surface water, storm water and discharge water are often the primary matrices of concern for operating mines.  Post closure challenges extend to soil, sediment, tissue and biota.  TestAmerica has more than 20 years of experience working for operators of mines as well as with multi-party and multi-governmental agencies.

During exploration, roads must be built to access remote areas creating storm water runoff management issues.  Drilling also typically occurs, triggering the need to manage drilling fluids and drill cuttings.  The development of the mine may include the excavation of material, creating the need for storm water management and waste characterization

Once operable, ore is removed from the mine, crushed, and treated to extract the desired minerals.  Storm water and discharge water are typically monitored as part of the process.  Operational mines produce waste materials that contain naturally occurring and/or concentrated metals and minerals as well as strong acids.   Over time, snow melt, rain, and groundwater interact with air and waste rock containing sulfide minerals, creating sulfuric acids.   If not controlled, the acidic waste water leaches additional contaminants from the native minerals such as arsenic, copper, nickel, zinc, chromium, aluminum and iron, resulting in acid rock drainage (ARD).  ARD potentially flows in to surrounding creeks, rivers and aquifers. 

During closure, owners and operators must restore the land to its pre-mining condition and may implement long term ground water programs to monitor constituents in the environment.

Abandoned Mines

Abandoned mines are sites where mining occurred but acceptable mine closure and reclamation did not occur. Environmental regulations regarding the management of environmental issues were not enacted until the 1970s, leaving many mines abandoned, unattended and without a responsible party. Mining was conducted in the United States without environmental management or policy for nearly 150 years and often on government owned lands.  The General Mining Act of 1872 authorized prospecting and mining for minerals on federal public lands, without royalties due to the government.  In 1976, the Federal Land Policy Management Act (FLPMA) was promulgated to halt or restrict unnecessary degradation of public lands.  FLPMA and subsequent rules require mining reclamation, financial guarantees for reclamation, permits and detailed operational plans.

Responsibility for abandoned mines is spread across multiple entities including previous owners, state agencies and federal agencies.  The former U.S. Bureau of Mines and the U.S. Geological Survey have the most data on abandoned hard rock mine inventories.  Environmental problems caused by legacy mines include ARD, metals contamination, and increased sediment levels in streams.