New testing has revealed that drinking water wells in the town of Yerington, Nevada are contaminated with uranium released by a nearby copper mine. Early this year, I covered the mine, originally opened in 1941 by the Anaconda Copper Company, as an example of how outdated federal mining laws have left behind a toxic legacy. There are an estimated 500,000 abandoned mines in the US and cleaning them up will cost at least $32 billion. In Yerington, fears of groundwater contamination long ago convinced 150 families to stop drinking from their taps. The company that most recently ran the mine, Arimetco, went bankrupt in 1997, leaving taxpayers to foot part of an environmental bill that could reach $50 million. (Meanwhile, Arimetco's former CEO now runs International Silver, Inc., which is seeking to mine 1,300 acres of federal land in California's Mojave Desert.)
A mining reform bill that is currently stalled in the US Senate would impose stricter national bonding requirements on mining companies. Yet as it stands, says Patricia Mulroy, the general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, mining poses a risk not just to rural outposts like Yerington, but also to the burgeoning metropolis of Las Vegas. Its water supply could be at risk of contamination from mining on any of the more than 1,200 uranium claims staked along the Colorado River (the Obama administration recently halted new claims in the area). Federal mining rules need to change, she says, not to punish miners, but to protect people who live near mines. "To begin to look at the law and ask, 'How does it function in a Western setting with far more cities, with much greater stress on water supplies?' I think, is highly appropriate."