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Audit finds serious hazards from abandoned mines
Abandoned Mines WX1 5759733
In this April 23, 2006 file photo, screens place by The National Park Service are seen across the entrance to some of the most dangerous historic mining shafts in Death Valley National Park, Calif. - photo by Associated Press
    WASHINGTON — 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 on federal land in California, Nevada and Arizona. The California Department of Conservation estimates there are currently about 47,000 abandoned mines in California. Other surveys have estimated there are about 500,000 such sites nationwide, where gold, silver, copper, lead and other minerals were once mined.
    ‘‘The findings of this audit paint a picture of compelling urgency, which should trigger a quick call to action by both the department and Congress,’’ the audit concluded.
    Congressional action may not be quick to come.
    For years lawmakers have tried but failed to rewrite the General Mining Law of 1872, which opened federal lands for mining but contained negligible requirements for clean up.
    Last year the House passed a reform bill to create a clean up fund for abandoned mines and force mining companies to pay royalties, like coal and other extraction industries already do. But efforts have stalled in the Senate. The main obstacle is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a gold miner’s son who has long protected the powerful gold-mining industry in his home state.
    House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said the audit painted ‘‘an abysmal picture.’’
    ‘‘It captures a snapshot of agencies that are failing to oversee abandoned hard rock mines, allowing these scarred properties to pose real and serious threats to the health and safety of Americans,’’ Rahall said. ‘‘This report underscores the need to pass meaningful reform of the law before additional tragedies occur.’’

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