A new report released yesterday shows existing U.S. hard rock mines (e.g. gold, copper, uranium) will pollute up to 27 billion gallons of fresh water per year and cost as much as $67 billion per year to clean, in perpetuity. Based on government data, Polluting the Future: How Mining Companies Are Polluting Our Nation’s Waters in Perpetuity also reveals that four proposed mines could annually pollute an additional 16 billion gallons.
“The scale of the problem is enormous, and growing,” said Bonnie Gestring, reports author and Earthworks’ Northwest 0rganizer. She continued, “Every year, mines will pollute enough water to fill 2 trillion water bottles—enough bottles to reach to the moon and back 54 times.”
“Agriculture, energy development, municipalities and fish and wildlife are already competing for increasingly scarce water resources,” said Gestring. “The difference is, when these mines ‘use’ water, they pollute it forever.”
The primary cause of this lasting pollution is well understood. Mines that expose sulfide-bearing ore generate sulfuric acid—otherwise known as acid mine drainage.
“No hard rock open pit mines exist today that can demonstrate that acid mine drainage can be stopped once it occurs on a large scale,” said Dr. Glenn Miller, professor of environmental science at the University of Nevada.
Because acid mine drainage can’t be stopped, once started it must be treated until the acid generating material runs out. As acknowledged in government mine permitting documents, this can take hundreds or thousands of years.
Four new mines are currently proposed at which perpetual water pollution is predicted or considered at high risk by mining companies or government agencies. These mines could generate an estimated 16 billion gallons of contaminated water per year. One is the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, which threatens the nation’s largest wild salmon fishery.
“We simply shouldn’t permit a mine at high risk for perpetual pollution, when it’s proposed in the midst of the nation’s most valuable wild salmon fishery,” said Bonnie Gestring. “It’s simply unfair and irresponsible to pass that legacy along to the many communities and businesses that rely on the fishery for their livelihoods.”
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