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Highlights

The Mining Act of 1872 helped foster the development of the West by giving individuals exclusive rights to mine gold, silver, copper, and other hardrock minerals on federal lands. However, miners often abandoned mines, leaving behind structures, safety hazards, and contaminated land and water. Four federal agencies--the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM), the Forest Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)--fund the cleanup of some of these sites. To curb further growth in the number of abandoned hardrock mines on federal lands, in 1981 BLM began requiring mining operators to reclaim lands when their operations ceased. In 2001, BLM began requiring all operators to provide financial assurances to guarantee funding for reclamation costs if the operator did not complete the task as required. This testimony provides information on the (1) federal funds spent to clean up abandoned hardrock mine sites since 1998, (2) number of abandoned hardrock mine sites and hazards, and (3) value and coverage of financial assurances operators use to guarantee reclamation costs on BLM land. To address these issues, GAO, among other steps, asked 12 western states and Alaska to provide information on the number of abandoned mine sites and associated features in their states using a consistent definition.

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