Image: Seth Johnson, abandoned mine
Ross D. Franklin  /  AP
Seth Johnson looks into an abandoned mine shaft in Chloride, Ariz., where two sisters riding on an all-terrain vehicle fell in 2007. Rikki Howard, 13, died on the scene while her sister, Casie Hicks, 10, was seriously injured.
updated 2/15/2009 12:59:39 PM ET 2009-02-15T17:59:39

When the Beal Mountain mine opened in 1988 near Butte, Mont., its owner promoted open-pit cyanide leaching for extracting gold from ore as modern and environmentally friendly.

Pegasus Gold Corp., a Canadian company, extracted nearly 460,000 ounces of gold over a decade before closing the mine and declaring bankruptcy in 1998.

It left behind a 70-acre, cyanide-contaminated leach pond with a leaky liner and tons of rubble that sends selenium-laced runoff into streams, threatening cutthroat trout and other fish. The $6.2 million reclamation bond posted by the company doesn't come close to covering the full cost to clean up the mine, which could total nearly $40 million.

"There is a real ticking time bomb up there," said Josh Vincent, president of a Trout Unlimited chapter near the mine, which sits on U.S. Forest Service land.

Efforts to clean up one of the West's most enduring and dangerous legacies — tens of thousands of abandoned hardrock mines, many dating to the 19th century — should get a boost from the economic stimulus bill awaiting President Barack Obama's signature.

The final bill, approved by the House and Senate on Friday, contains more than $1.5 billion for construction and maintenance projects in the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the Forest Service. That includes addressing pollution and safety hazards caused by abandoned mines on public lands.

The three agencies together spent about $25 million on mine cleanup in the budget year that ended last Sept. 30, according to the staff of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of the lawmakers who sought the money.

Projects ranging from repairing trails to replacing equipment also are eligible for the money, so there is no guarantee the money will be spent on mine cleanup. The bill says preference is supposed to go to projects that generate most jobs.

Advocates for cleaning up abandoned mines say the work is a strong job-generator.

"These much needed funds will create thousands of jobs, reduce water pollution, eliminate public safety threats, and restore fish and wildlife habitat in rural communities across the country," said Lauren Pagel, policy director for Earthworks, an environmental group focused on mining issues.

The Government Accountability Office estimates there are at least 161,000 abandoned hardrock mines in Alaska and 11 other western states, plus South Dakota. Open mine shafts and decaying structures pose safety hazards, contaminants are polluting streams and groundwater, and piles of tailings tinged with arsenic have been left behind.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates it could cost as much as $50 billion to clean up all the nation's abandoned hardrock mines.

Anti-tax groups questioned whether mine cleanup merits funds at all, considering that the bill is intended to jump-start the economy. Cleanups are temporary and unlikely to have any lasting economic effect, said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, which advocates for less government spending.

"It's not like anyone is going to dig in these mines ever again," he said.

A report last year by the Interior Department's inspector general said abandoned mines on BLM and National Park Service land are exposing people to dangerous contaminants such as arsenic, lead and mercury. Other dangers include deadly gases, collapsing mine walls and explosive chemicals.

Among the dangers outlined in the report: all-terrain vehicle riders falling into abandoned mine shafts.

In 2007, a 13-year-old girl was killed and her 10-year-old sister seriously injured when the all-terrain vehicle they were riding ran off a trail and fell into a 125-foot mine shaft a short distance from a BLM campground near Chloride, Ariz.

At the Mojave National Preserve in California, investigators found mine shafts along roads that were large enough to swallow cars.

"The potential for more deaths and injuries is ominous," the report said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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