Earthworks

[Editor’s note: Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its annual Toxics Release Inventory report. The Toxics Release Inventory provides Americans with vital information about their communities, including certain toxic chemical releases to the air, water and land. Total releases of toxic chemicals in 2011 increased for the second year in a row. The 2011 data shows that 4.09 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were disposed of or released into the environment, an eight percent increase from 2010.]

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified the metal mining industry as the nation’s largest toxic polluter. The metal mining industry reported the release of 1.9 billion pounds of toxic chemicals in 2011, according to the U.S. EPA’s annual Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), or 46 percent of all reported toxics.

“Billions of pounds of pollution requires billions of dollars to clean up,” said Earthworks’ Strategic Communications Director Alan Septoff. “If the EPA doesn’t act soon to require cleanup bonds, taxpayers could be paying the cleanup bill instead of the polluting mining companies. Meanwhile, our nation’s rivers, streams, air and land remain at risk.”

The EPA was court-ordered in 2009 to issue financial assurance requirements for the metal mining industry to protect taxpayers against clean-up costs under its CERCLA authority. Yet, the EPA has recently postponed the draft rule release date until 2014. Financial assurance is intended to guarantee that mining companies provide funding up front to demonstrate that mine clean-up will occur if the company is unable or unwilling to do so. Some states don’t require adequate, or any, financial assurance (aka bonds) for mine reclamation and closure.

“Idaho’s Lucky Friday mine reported 17 million pounds of toxic releases in 2011 and will require long-term water treatment when it closes,” said Earthworks’ Northwest Circuit Rider Bonnie Gestring. “Idaho doesn’t require a bond for underground mines, so taxpayers could be on the hook for more than $100 million in mine clean-up costs at this mine alone.” Hecla, the mining company behind the Lucky Friday mine, has previously experienced financial problems.

The metal mining industry has been the nation’s largest toxic polluter every year since it was required to report its releases to the TRI in 1997. The metal mining industry accounts for the vast majority of toxic releases, such as:

  • Arsenic – 334 million pounds or 97 percent of all releases,
  • Lead – 724 million pounds or  93 percent of all releases, and
  • Mercury – 5 million pounds or 93 percent of all releases, among others.

More than 500 mines are listed in the U.S. EPA’s CERCLA program, and the EPA estimates the current liability to taxpayers at $50 billion.

“What’s fair is fair,” said Bonnie Gestring Earthwork’s northwest circuit rider.  “Taxpayers should not be shouldering the cost of mine clean-up. We need these rules to hold mining companies accountable for their own pollution.

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