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Abandoned Mines Get New Attention

Utah Division of Water Quality
The San Juan River has been declared safe for irrigation and recreation, but new scrutiny of all abandoned mines -- including 20,000 in Utah -- is expected following the Gold King Mine.

Life’s getting back to normal in southeastern Utah after the dramatic Gold King Mine spill, and the San Juan River has been declared safefor irrigation and livestock watering.

Now attention’s shifting toward preventing another toxic mine spill in Utah and elsewhere.

Roughly 20,000 abandoned mines dot Utah’s landscapes, from gold and silver pits in the mountains, coal shafts in central Utah and uranium mines in the Colorado Plateau deserts.

Steve Fluke, who oversees the state office charged with plugging those mines for the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, doesn’t foresee a Gold King-style disaster in Utah.

“Most of the abandoned mines in Utah are dry,” he explains. “I’m not aware of any big issues with openings holding back big acid mine drainage or sludge or anything like that.”

Utah’s abandoned mines have taken 10 lives over the past three decades. So, Fluke’s team has developed a strategy to eventually plug them all, although its mandate and $1.5 million budget focuses on coal mines.

The U.S. has a backlog of 500,000 abandoned mines, with a few hundred leaking toxic wastewater.

Utah Congressman Chris Stewart says the brilliant orange waters flowing below the Gold King Mine have been a wake-up call for Congress.

“We didn’t really understand probably the extent of the environmental threat that some of them face, and I think now we do,” he says. “And I think there’ll be a more focused look at how we can deal with these mines more safely.”

Stewart says the Environmental Protection Agency has lots of explaining to do for the accident itself and the agency’s response. A member of the House subcommittee that deals with environmental spending, he also doubts that funding alone will solve the problems that caused the spill.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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