Center for Western Priorities Facebook
Center for Western Priorities Twitter
Center for Western Priorities Videos


Cleaning Up Abandoned Mines Could Cost Western States Billions


DECEMBER 2, 2015

New Analysis Reveals Hidden Price Tag of States Taking Over American Lands

DENVER—A new report from the Center for Western Priorities finds the cost of cleaning up the 100,000 abandoned mines on national public lands across the American West could reach $21 billion. The analysis shines a light on the costs Western states would be saddled with if national public lands were handed over to the states, a proposal which is gaining traction among some fringe anti-government groups and elected officials.

The recent environmental catastrophe at Colorado’s Gold King Mine highlighted the risk that abandoned mines pose to Western water, wildlife, recreation, farming, and ranching. Tens of thousands of abandoned mines remain on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands; cleanup costs which are currently shouldered by American taxpayers.

“These numbers ought to be a wakeup call to politicians who falsely claim that states could afford to take over the management of our national lands,” said Jessica Goad, advocacy director at the Center for Western Priorities and author of the report. “Arizona alone faces more than two billion dollars in abandoned mine cleanup costs. Because states must operate under balanced budgets, should states takeover American public lands their taxpayers might have to choose between cleaning up mines, or funding schools and law enforcement.”

In the analysis, titled The Mining Burden, CWP gathered the best available estimates of the number of abandoned mines on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land in 13 Western states. Based on those estimates, along with the average cleanup costs of different types of contamination, CWP calculated the possible low- and high-end costs to clean up all mines on national public land in each state.


Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 9.35.59 AM

Source: CWP calculations using Government Accountability Office and Mineral Policy Center data, adjusted for inflation

Under the federal Superfund law, both U.S. land management agencies and states can be held liable for responding to disasters and cleaning up abandoned mines, even if they didn’t engage in mining activities. Should states take over national land, they could be forced to shoulder the costs of abandoned mine cleanups that are currently paid for by the U.S. government. This fact has given pause to some state experts, including those who analyzed the costs of states taking over national lands in Utah and Idaho.

“While politicians may think that giving away our national lands is a ‘red meat’ issue, the reality is that this proposal would be extremely costly,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director at CWP. “Rather than try to score political points, politicians who visit the West this campaign season should focus on real solutions to the unique issues facing our region.”

Previous research by the Center for Western Priorities revealed a similar situation for wildfire suppression, showing states would be liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in annual firefighting costs if national lands were handed over to state control.

The Mining Burden is available for download at An interactive map showing the potential costs of abandoned mine cleanup in each Western state is also available for embedding in online articles. To speak with an expert about abandoned mines or to embed the map in your story, contact media director Aaron Weiss at or 720-279-0019.

Latest News

@WstrnPriorities on Twitter

14 hours ago
Putting Karen Budd-Falen at the head of @BLMNational would send a clear signal to land seizure advocates that @SecretaryZinke is on their side.
3 days ago
@SecretaryZinke rocked moccasins to celebrate native cultures. But tribes are focused on his plans to rock Bears Ears, via @bydarrylfears @eilperin
WstrnPriorities photo


House committee chairman attacks reporter for doing his job

Utah Congressman Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has made no secrets about his disdain for America’s...

November 10th, 2017

Trying to shrink Bears Ears, Trump makes it clear whose heritage he cares about

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said Friday that President Trump had called him to announce his intent to dramatically shrink Bears...

October 27th, 2017

The Zinke Doctrine: Make public lands hard for the public to use, easy for industry to abuse

More than six months into Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tenure at the Interior Department, we’re getting a clear picture of what...

October 27th, 2017