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The Mining Burden: Why State Land Seizures Could Cost Billions

In August 2015, viewers across the world watched in horror as three million gallons of contaminated water poured into the Animas River in southern Colorado, turning the water a bright amber color. The source of the toxic sludge was the Gold King Mine, abandoned decades ago by its original owner. Contractors with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) working to clean up the mine accidentally released the toxic chemicals into the river.

Channeling Winston Churchill, some politicians did not let a good crisis go to waste, and were quick to blame EPA and “federal overreach” for the accident. A handful went even further, claiming that the incident was evidence that states would be better managers of American public lands than the federal government. For example:

This mistake and lack of transparency by the federal EPA is yet another egregious example of why states and local entities are much better managers of our own land and natural resources.

—Utah State Senator Margaret Dayton

Statements like these are an attempt to bolster a movement by some Western politicians to compel the U.S. government to hand over hundreds of millions of acres of American public lands to the states. These proposals have led to serious concerns, with experts doubting their constitutionality, public opinion research indicating their deep unpopularity, and economic experts questioning how states could afford the costs of managing public lands.

The Gold King Mine catastrophe highlighted one of the major costs of public lands management: remediating America’s mining legacy, which left toxic abandoned mines scattered across the Western U.S. There are tens of thousands of abandoned mines—just like the Gold King—on national public lands. So, any state taking over management of American lands within its borders would not only receive the benefits offered by those lands, but also their costs and liabilities such as abandoned mines.

In this new analysis we examine the costs that states would take onto their books from all abandoned mines, and put a price tag on those cleanup responsibilities that would be transferred to the states. We estimate that should state land takeover efforts move forward, 13 Western states would be saddled with between $9.6 and $21 billion in costs of cleaning up the approximately 100,000 abandoned mines that exist on public lands today.

This multi-billion dollar price tag is one that states, which must operate under balanced budgets, would be careless to take on. Proponents of turning American lands over to the states have not explained how states could afford the costs of cleaning up abandoned hardrock mines, or the liabilities that would occur should an accident like the Animas River spill occur, without raising taxes or selling off large tracts of public lands to private entities.

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