Abandoned mines stir up health concerns
Winds carry toxic waste to towns
RANDSBURG, Calif. - Heaps of toxic mine waste rise like steeples over this wind-swept desert town, threatening the health of residents and off-road bikers.
Tests on dust samples have revealed some of the highest arsenic levels in the country - as much as 460,000 times the level deemed safe by the federal government.
But although the poison can cause cancer in people and harm wildlife, little has been done to remove the waste here or similar hazardous waste at thousands of other abandoned mines around the nation.
The Bureau of Land Management said it is moving to address the problem, but the costs are expected to be high. "Worst-case scenario, we'll have to clean up everything, which could do more environmental damage than leaving it and monitoring it," said Richard Forester, who oversees the Rand Mining District cleanup for the BLM.
Forester and others worry that particles of arsenic scattered by the area's stiff wind could be slowly poisoning the estimated 300 residents of Randsburg, Johannesburg, and Red Mountain.
The dozens of old gold and silver mines in the sparsely populated area about 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles are among the estimated 500,000 abandoned mines nationwide that have been largely ignored because of their remote locations.
In recent years, however, development has crept closer and off-roaders in search of open spaces have descended on many of the sites.
A federal audit released in July said the problem was not being effectively dealt with by the BLM.
"You're basically on a collision course," said Velma Smith, manager of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, an advocacy group that has been pushing for more federal cleanup money. "Right now it's less than Band-Aids on a hemorrhage."
An audit by the inspector general of the Interior Department accused the BLM of endangering public health and safety by failing to clean up and properly fence off the abandoned mines. It found dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, and mercury, along with gaping holes, at dilapidated hard-rock mining sites easily accessible by people.
In a rarely issued "flash report," auditors said that in 2007 they found piles of contaminated mine waste in residents' backyards and arsenic-laden trails openly used by thousands of off-road bikers.
Still, some longtime residents just shrug when asked if they're worried about the high arsenic levels.
"I don't know of anyone who's died of arsenic poisoning," retiree Darell White, 71, said in Randsburg, a living ghost town of Western-themed restaurants and antiques stores.
Rangers regularly patrol for trespassers but are required to leave when the wind picks up to 25 miles per hour and the air becomes thick with dust.
The BLM, a division of the Interior Department, has defended its abandoned mine program as "highly effective."
The process of extracting gold concentrated the arsenic and created a semiliquid waste called slurry that miners simply dumped.
Kim's preliminary tests show the arsenic is unlikely to get into drinking water but could be ingested by swallowing food exposed to contaminated dust or soil.
Money is the biggest obstacle to a cleanup. The cost of cleaning up all the nation's abandoned mines could reach $72 billion.