Sulfide Mining Track Record

Sulfide mining has a near-perfect track record of creating pollution.  Despite its protests that it can be done safely, mining companies are unable to point to a sulfide mine that has ever been developed, operated and closed without producing polluted drainage from its operations.

Not only do these mines consistently pollute, but studies show the companies and state agencies reviewing mine plans predict no pollution will occur, when in fact, it always does.  Analysis of environmental impact statements for hardrock mines showed that 100 percent of mines predicted compliance with water quality standards before operations began.

When researchers examined the track record of these mines after operations began, they found that 76 percent of them were actually discharging pollutants in excess of water quality standards.  In addition, “mitigation measures,” those efforts taken to remedy the discovered pollution problems, failed to do the job 64 percent of the time (source PDF).

Mines Gone Wrong

Pollution problems from sulfide mines are not just an issue of old mines using old technologies.  Acid mine drainage and toxic metal contamination are problems from modern mines using the latest technology.  Here are some examples:

  • Summitville Gold Mine, Colorado.  Pollution spilled from a containment pond and 18 miles of the Alamosa River were killed, impacting all aquatic live in the river as well as adjacent farms and ranches that relied on the river for irrigation and livestock watering (source PDF).
  • Zortman-Landusky Mine, Montana.  This mine is generating acid mine drainage that is predicted to continue for thousands of years (source PDF).  “Nearly every drainage in the Little Rocky Mountains has been contaminated with contaminated runoff from the mine” (source PDF).
  • Red Dog Mine, Alaska. Studies have found heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and zinc along a 24-mile stretch of the mine’s 52-mile haul road.  Lead levels outside the mill are documented at 30 percent higher than safe for human health.  The company has routinely been found in violation of air quality standards.  The Native Village of Kivalina, downstream from the mine, is concerned about toxic levels of metals in a nearby creek that flows into the Wulik River, the village’s source of fish and drinking water (source PDF).
  • Pinto Valley Mine, Arizona.  In 1997, a tailings dam failed, and 3.4 million gallons of heavy-metal tainted water were released into Pinto Creek, a water body that flows into Roosevelt Lake, one of the area’s largest sources of drinking water (source PDF; source PDF 2).
  • Chino Mine, New Mexico.  Between 1991 and 1996, almost 250,000 gallons of tailings were released into Whitewater Creek when the mine experienced a series of pipeline ruptures (source PDF; source PDF 2).  During a three-month period of time in 2000, at the Chino Mine and two other Phelps Dodge mines in the vicinity, hundreds of bird carcasses were discovered.  The birds, some protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, had landed in water in tailings impoundments and in stormwater retention basins.  Concentrations of hazardous substances in other birds, small mammals and reptiles show evidence that wildlife have been exposed to toxic substances at the mine site (source PDF).
  • Gilt Edge Mine, South Dakota.  Began generating acid mine drainage in 1992, contaminating nearby water bodies with acid showing pH levels as low as 2.1, destroying viable fish populations in area streams (source PDF).
  • Grouse Creek Mine, Idaho.  When the mine opened in 1994, it was heralded as a “state-of-the-art” mine.  Three years later, the mine closed, leaving no profits and leaking tailings impoundments.  In 2003, the EPA and the Forest Service declared the mine site to be an “imminent and substantial endangerment”  (source PDF; source).
  • Flambeau Mine, Wisconsin.  The mine began production in 1993 and ceased operations in 1997.  It is sometimes cited by industry representatives as an example of a sulfide mine that has not polluted its adjacent waters.  Recent studies show this claim to be false.   Two areas of contamination have been discovered, one discharge that exceeds water quality standards into a stream that flows into the Flambeau River, and another in a groundwater monitoring well between the mine pit and the River (source PDF). The Flambeau Mine is currently the subject of a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act.

International Impacts

Pollution disasters are not limited to the United States.  Sulfide mining has a track record of pollution around the globe.

  • Omai gold mine, Guyana. In 1995, a tailings dam failed, resulting in 51 kilometers of river area, home to 23,000 people, being declared an “Environmental Disaster Zone” (source PDF).
  • Ok Tedi mine, Papua New Guinea. When the mine experienced a tailings dam failure due to a landslide, the company started dumping its mine wastes directly into the Ok Tedi River.  Daily, this mine dumps 120,000 tons of waste rock into the river, contaminating it with toxic metals and poisoning fish (source PDF).

Financial Failures

This pollution not only takes a toll on the environment and human health, but also brings long-lasting financial burdens to communities and states.  It is a regrettable reality that the history of metal mining is filled with companies going bankrupt or lacking the financial resources to respond to pollution from their mines.

The result has either been ongoing environmental contamination, with community-wide environmental and economic impacts, or a shift of financial burden from the companies to the public to clean up mining pollution.   The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the cost of mine cleanup for sites listed as national priorities is $20 billion.

The most significant cost associated with this cleanup is long-term water treatment and management (PDF).   The mining pollution examples listed previously are also examples of the financial failure of mining companies and the associated taxpayer liability:

  • Summitville Gold Mine, Colorado.  The company filed for bankruptcy, leaving cleanup costs to the public.  Costs expected to be about $235 million and take at least 100 years (source PDF).
  • Zortman Landusky Mine, Montana.  In 1998, the company abandoned the site and filed for bankruptcy.  After several lawsuits against the mining company and its creditors following the company’s bankruptcy, Montana’s taxpayers are still liable for anywhere from $8 million to $90 million.
  • Gilt Edge Mine, South Dakota.  The parent company, Dakota Mining, went bankrupt and abandoned the mine in 1999 with only a $6 million bond in place, an amount insufficient to cover water treatment for even a single year.  In 2000, South Dakota requested the site be designated a Superfund site for long-term cleanup, leaving the burden of reclamation costs on taxpayers (source PDF).