In Wake of Canadian Disaster, Grijalva and Lowenthal Request Federal Information on Mine Tailings Dams Safety and Inspections

Washington, D.C. – Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, sent a letter today to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze requesting detailed information on tailings dam safety on public lands and highlighting the recent environmental disaster from a collapsed dam in British Columbia.

The letter is prompted in part by the August 2014 failure of the Mount Polley mine tailings dam, which released more than 25 million cubic meters of copper and gold mining waste into the Fraser River watershed. The waste contained high concentrations of arsenic, copper, iron, and manganese, which has the potential to severely damage the area’s population of Pacific Salmon and other fish.

As the congressmen write, “The results of the Mount Polley investigation are particularly troubling because there are several existing or proposed mines in the United States located on potentially unstable glacial foundations, and two of the engineering firms involved in the construction and management of the Mount Polley tailings dam have also been involved in the designs of tailings dams for domestic projects such as the proposed Rosemont Mine in Arizona.”

“Mining operations shouldn’t be given a blank check to pile waste until it overflows or safety measures fail,” Grijalva said. “That goes double for mines on public land, where we have dangerously little information about risks to public health and the environment. We need to make sure we don’t have a repeat of the Mount Polley disaster, in Arizona or anywhere else in this country.”

“This safety issue must be addressed; there are mine tailings dams on federal lands across our country that may be at risk, but Congress and the American public are in the dark,” Lowenthal said. “Effective oversight requires gathering this important information.”

The letter requests:

• The number and location of tailings facilities that are sited on public lands;
• Both agencies’ current knowledge about the structural stability of these tailings facilities;
• How often each tailings dam is inspected, when the last time each facility was inspected, and by whom;
• The amount of financial assurance held by the BLM or Forest Service, or in partnership with state agencies, to financially provide for the long-term management of each facility, and whether or not that financial assurance is sufficient to play for clean-up in the event of a failure; and
• Tidwell’s and Kornze’s assessments of whether the recommendations from the Mount Polley review panel could be applied in the United States to strengthen tailings impoundment safety requirements and reduce the potential for catastrophic mine tailings dam failures.