Cleaning Up Abandoned Mines Could Cost Western States Billions

Dec 2, 2015


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.


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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.