Redux: The rise of the land-healing industry

Reupping this piece in honor of infrastructure week

Editor’s Note: This piece first ran in the Land Desk this spring. I’m re-upping it now because Congress finally passed the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes: $4.7 billion for orphaned well cleanup (but no coupled raise in royalties to make industry pay for it); $3 billion for abandoned hardrock mine reclamation (but no General Mining Law reform to make industry pay for it); $2.1 billion for ecosystem restoration, and so forth. Despite the lack of reforms thus far (they may still come in the Build Back Better Act, still being debated), the legislation really is remarkable. I’ll be writing more about it in future Land Desk dispatches and for High Country News.

Kirstin Brown, of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, talks about the Koehler Mine in 2016. The Sunnyside Gold Corp. paid for the mine to be bulkheaded as part of its consent decree with the State of Colorado. The fix appears to have worked. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

In 1991, Echo Bay, a global mining conglomerate, announced that it was shutting down its Sunnyside Mine, the last big hardrock mining operation in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, and laying off its workforce of nearly 200. Nearby Silverton, aka “the mining town that wouldn’t quit,” was gutted of half its population, houses were sold for a pittance, and the tax base collapsed. The town was forced, virtually overnight, to throw all of its economic eggs into the tourism basket, dooming it once again to be a one-industry town. 

Yet, the mining industry and its high-wage jobs weren’t totally gone. The owners of the mine still had to clean up its mess, or at least try, and somehow deal with the acidic, heavy-metal-laden water that was pouring out of its mine access point, the American Tunnel, at 1,600 gallons per minute. 

Eventually the mining company made a deal with the State of Colorado: They’d plug up the American Tunnel in order to cut down on the drainage, while also cleaning up a number of other polluting, zombie mine-sites, the last operators of which had long ago skittered under the floorboards of history. To do the work, Sunnyside kept on a handful of employees, including a few who were multi-generational local miners. They had the expertise, they knew the geology and the mines of the region, and they and their families were able to stay in Silverton for another decade or so, earning good wages and contributing to the local economy and community. 

Expand that notion to mined-lands and the oil and gas patches across the West, and you’d have the makings of a full-blown restoration economy, in which miners and oil rig workers are put to work cleaning up the mess left by nearly two centuries of extraction. The concept’s been around for decades, but it has never been implemented in widespread fashion.

Now, however, with the coal industry in deep decline and the fossil fuel empires beginning to crumble, the vision of a restoration economy is rising again. And President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, unveiled last week, will provide “an immediate up-front investment of $16 billion” towards plugging abandoned oil and gas wells, reclaiming coal mines, and remediating the hazards posed by uranium and hardrock mines. 

This is a big deal for a number of reasons. For one, it acknowledges the fact that each and every mine and oil and gas well is, potentially, a forever-polluter. An inactive mine spews the same acid mine drainage as a producing one. An abandoned oil or gas well can leak methane, hydrogen sulfide, and volatile organic compounds into the ground, water, and air just as readily as an active one. Hundreds of long-idle uranium mines scattered across the Navajo Nation continue to poison the people who live there. 

Some of these problems can never be “fixed,” in a definitive fashion. Plug a draining mine and sooner or later the tainted waters will emerge from somewhere else. But the hazards can almost always be mitigated, it just takes workers and money and time. 

Biden’s plan is also significant because it shows empathy for the workers and communities that will suffer, as Silverton did, when the extraction corporations abandon them. Too often these communities are reassured with promises that tourism, recreation, the Zoom economy, or renewable energy will fill the void. But no ski resort, solar farm, or troupe of telecommuters is going to replace the hundreds of $80,000-per-year jobs that vanish when a mine or power plant closes. Besides, if you had spent your career working on a rig or underground, developing a certain skill set, how would you react if someone told you not to worry, because you can always get a job at a t-shirt shop or as a ski-lift-operator? 

The healing industry may not be able to replace all of the lost revenue, either. But at least the jobs it provides are similar to those that vanished, could pay similar wages, and would utilize the same sets of skills. 

The devil, naturally, is in the details. And the details are mostly going to be in the hands of Congress as they put the Biden plan through the legislative sausage-making machine.

Earthworks Policy Director Lauren Pagel said in a statement that the plan is “the most significant federal initiative to address abandoned/orphaned mines in recent memory.” Yet she also pointed out that $16 billion is only enough for a “down payment” on the ambitious project. Dealing with abandoned hardrock mines, alone, will likely require far more than that. And plugging and reclaiming the nation’s oil and gas wells could run into the hundreds of billions of dollars, according to some estimates.

That infusion of cash must be accompanied by reform, as well, in order to ensure that the abandoned and orphaned wells and mines of the future are also cleaned up, and that the work is funded by the industry, not the taxpayers. Otherwise, the $16 billion just becomes another subsidy to the mining and fossil fuels corporations. Reclamation bonds need to be increased substantially, the General Mining Law of 1872 needs to be scrapped and overhauled, and royalty rates on oil and gas production need to be upped considerably, which would bring in more cash to pay for the cleanup program. 

Megan Milliken Biven, who formerly worked for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and is outspoken on the issue of abandoned and orphaned well cleanup, cautions against funneling the money straight into existing state-run well-reclamation programs. States, she says, particularly those that rely heavily on oil and gas production for tax revenue, are vulnerable to regulatory capture. Biven, instead, advocates for the creation of a federal Abandoned Well Administration to oversee these efforts (the Twitter thread below is well worth a read). 

The Sunnyside Mine story, meanwhile, is both an inspirational and a cautionary tale. The $25 million worth of work the company did over more than a decade not only employed miners and benefitted the local economy, but it also improved water quality and benefitted fisheries in the Animas River downstream. Its obligations fulfilled, Sunnyside was released from its consent decree with the state. 

Shortly thereafter, the Gold King Mine began to ooze acidic water that had, presumably, backed up behind the Sunnyside Mine’s plugs in its American Tunnel. In 2015, the Gold King blew out, spewing 3 million gallons of polluted water into a tributary to the Animas River, which then turned waters orange for 100 miles downstream. It’s a reminder that the healing-industry has its work cut out for it, and that the work of restoration never really ends. Maybe that’s okay, since the work of restoration is, “a full physical, spiritual, and intellectual involvement with the Earth, and an emphasis on the primacy of human relationships over the accumulation of personal wealth,” as Barry Lopez, the renowned nature writer who died last year, wrote in his 1991 introduction to Helping Nature Heal: An introduction to environmental restoration, by Richard Nilsen. He went on:

Restoration work is not fixing beautiful machinery … It is accepting an abandoned responsibility. It is a humble and often joyful mending of biological ties, with a hope clearly recognized that working from this foundation we might, too, begin to mend human society.

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(Read more about the Gold King incident and all the events leading up to it in my book, River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster).