July 27, 2008

Audit: Serious Hazards in Abandoned Mines

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The government has endangered the public's health and safety by failing to clean up abandoned mines on federal land in the West, according to a scathing audit released Friday.

The Interior Department's inspector general found dangerous levels of arsenic, lead and mercury, along with gaping cavities, at dilapidated hard-rock mining sites easily accessible to visitors and residents.

Bureau of Land Management supervisors told staff to ignore the problems, and employees who tried to report contaminated sites were threatened with retaliation, the audit said.

At least 12 people were killed in accidents at abandoned mine sites between 2004 and 2007, and "the potential for more deaths and injuries are ominous," it said.

The mines are mostly in California, Nevada and Arizona. The California Department of Conservation estimates there are about 47,000 abandoned mines in California. Other surveys have estimated about 500,000 such sites nationwide, where gold, silver, copper, lead and other minerals were mined, often decades ago.

Environmentalists have estimated cleanup costs as high as $72 billion. But the inspector general's audit noted that simple precautions could be taken, such as fences and warning signs. So far, the audit indicates, the Bureau of Land Management has hardly been up to the job.

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