U.S. mining companies are responsible for 50 million gallons of toxic wastewater flowing untreated every day into streams and ponds around the country, according to a new analysis.
An Associated Press investigation that included federal records and interviews with local experts found more than 50 million gallons of wastewater — including roughly 20 million gallons of toxic chemicals such as arsenic — entering ponds and streams daily, causing major risks to local wildlife populations.
The investigation examined 43 mining sites totaling hundreds of individual mines under federal jurisdiction, many of which are abandoned, and found that six sites are at risk of major environmental disasters similar to the 2015 Gold King Mine accident that caused 3 million gallons of wastewater to taint rivers in three states.
Some mines will require indefinite cleanup by the federal government at taxpayer expense, according to the investigation, as mining companies for years were allowed to abandon sites and ignore the environmental impact of the dilapidated facilities under U.S. law.
A deputy director at the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Superfund program, which assists in mine cleanup operations, told the AP that the agency is attempting to prioritize abandoned mining sites based on the impact the sites have on the surrounding environment.
“We have been trying to play a very careful game of prioritization,” Dana Stalcup told the AP. “We know the Superfund program is not the answer to the hundreds of thousands of mines out there, but the mines we are working on, we want to do them the best we can.”
Environmental groups told the AP that one solution for expediting cleanup of the fouled mining sites would be to revive an EPA proposal halted by the Trump administration that would force mining companies still operating in the U.S. to post bonds for cleaning up sites or provide other financial contributions to the efforts.
“When something gets on a Superfund site, that doesn’t mean it instantly and magically gets cleaned up,” Earthjustice attorney Amanda Goodin told the news service. “Having money immediately available from a responsible party would be a game changer.”