* On Tuesday, April 19, 2016, this CBS 5 Investigates story was honored with an Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting.
The state of Arizona is home to an estimated 100,000 abandoned mines, but no state or federal agency has an accurate count of how many of them are leaking toxic heavy metals into the environment and waterways.
CBS 5 Investigates collected soil and water samples from the areas around six old uranium, lead, silver and copper mines. The tests showed levels of heavy metals that were under the EPA standards for toxicity, but alarming to the scientists who conducted the testing.
“Uranium is one of the really bad ones,” said Andrea Neal, Ph.D., who is the president of Blue Ocean Sciences, which conducted the testing for CBS 5 Investigates.
Neal has served as the science adviser for Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society and has worked on several large-scale international projects, scientific research and environmental campaigns.
“Looking at uranium at that level anywhere, I would say it needs to be cleaned up,” Neal said.
“When you’re considering something that’s radioactive, it’s terrible stuff. Even when you’re considering low parts per billion levels,” said Randall Mielke, who oversaw the testing process. Mielke has a Ph.D. in nanomaterials toxicity to bacteria and higher life forms.
The results showed 22 PPB of uranium in soil near the entrance of an abandoned uranium mine in the Sierra Ancha Wilderness, northeast of Roosevelt Lake. The level at which the EPA becomes alarmed is 30 PPB. The state of California has lowered the “safe” level to 20 PPB, and is considering dropping it even further.
“Should the national standard really be 30 PPB? Probably not,” Neal said.
The uranium mine is located on the side of a mountain, near a waterfall that feeds into Cherry Creek, which feeds into the Salt River, which feeds into Roosevelt. A water sample taken from Cherry Creek downstream from the mines showed 0.24 PPB of uranium. Given the flow of water at that spot, Mielke estimates the creek sends as much as 3.9 pounds of uranium into Roosevelt each year.
“Just the fact that you can see some is scary, especially in a flowing creek,” said Mielke.
The tests showed levels of Cadmium that exceeded EPA safe levels at eight of nine locations, from the Sierra Anchas to the mountains near Patagonia, in southeastern Arizona. That was the location of a pollution event in September of 2014, when heavy rains sent orange sludge, known as acid mine drainage, into one of the creeks that leads into the watershed for the town of Patagonia.
“The forest service issued an urgent cleanup notice back in February, and it was supposed to be fixed before the monsoon rains started. But here we are a year later and nothing has happened,” said Wendy Russell, who is a member of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance.
The Sierra Club is one of the organizations advocating for increased efforts to clean up Arizona’s legacy mines.
“Maybe some of these mines going forward maybe shouldn’t be permitted in the first place because we’re not going to be able to deal with the pollution problems that they’re going to cause,” said Don Steuter, who is the conservation chair for the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club.
Steuter says there is not enough money dedicated to cleaning up more than a fraction of the environmental pollution.
“We are only able to tackle, due to insufficient funding, the most egregious problems that are out there,” said Steuter, referring to the federal Superfund sites, where cleanup is underway. He says those are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problem mines.
Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva introduced a bill earlier this year which would create a new funding source for environmental cleanup due to mine pollution. The bill is currently sitting in committee.
, saying that the organization does not oppose a royalty on new mines, provided it sustains a competitive environment for U.S. mines.
“The current legislation includes royalties that would be among the highest in the world,” wrote Kelly Norton, president of the Arizona Mining Association.
Officials from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality told CBS 5 Investigates that the U.S. Forest Service has remediated several uranium mines in the area along Workman Creek, which is one of the waterways we tested. But restrictions remain for two picnic areas along Workman Creek, because of radioactive material in the area.
ADEQ is in the process of conducting a mine risk analysis, which is assessing the pollution problems associated with abandoned mines across the state. The process will take several months.
Meantime, you can find the most recent, as well as historical government-sponsored water quality tests on Arizona’s waterways and reservoirs here.
According to water quality tests from the city of Phoenix and other Valley city water departments, trace amounts of uranium and other heavy metals are found in the Valley’s water supply, but those levels are well below the EPA set limits for safe drinking water.
But experts who study water pollution say they believe the problem of abandoned mines needs more attention.
“They truly are the ghost mines. They’re the haunting of the United States, because people don’t know about it. They don’t know that there are these toxic mines out there that are potentially impacting their watersheds and their water resources,” Neal of Blue Ocean Sciences said.
Follow-up stories Online database could help identify abandoned toxic mines (Feb. 26, 2016) Residents accuse mining company of polluting town (Jan. 23, 2016) US Forest Service cleans contaminated mine (Dec. 1, 2015)Copyright 2015 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.