The Corps’ RAMS program helps restore land, keep people safe from abandoned mines

Published Nov. 9, 2018

Abandoned mines scattered throughout the United States present potentially dangerous public safety and environmental hazards. Open mine shafts, unstable passages, acid drainage, toxic air, and leftover explosive materials are just some of the hazards commonly associated with abandoned mine sites.

Mines often fill with toxic water as rains flow in and accumulate over the years, mixing with leftover explosives, chemicals or naturally occurring toxins. These accumulations of water pose a threat should they seep out or be released into local waterways.

One stark example occurred in August 2015 at the Gold King Mine in Colorado. An accidental breach of a tunnel bulkhead led to the release of nearly three million gallons of toxic water into the Animas River, near Silverton.

With both people and nature at risk, leaving abandoned mines in an unaltered condition is not an option. Proactive measures need to be taken to reclaim the land.

That’s where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Restoration of Abandoned Mine Sites (RAMS) program comes in.

Established in 1999, the RAMS program works in cooperation with State Departments of Environmental Quality and State Departments of Conservation, and numerous federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to address concerns for dealing with potential impacts of hundreds of abandoned mines in the American west. Specifically, the program’s goal is to provide technical, planning, and design assistance to Federal and non-Federal interests in carrying out projects to address water quality problems caused by drainage and related activities from abandoned and inactive non-coal mines. It’s a small, little-known yet important program within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Since mines don’t come with pre-written directions on how to plug a toxic leak or quickly seal off all entrances, cleanup requires teamwork between multiple agencies and, most importantly, a comprehensive strategy. The RAMS program has historically provided funding for collaborative efforts towards the mitigation of high-priority abandoned mine sites in many states.

According to project manager Bryon Lake, there is no one-size-fits-all method for restoration of abandoned mine sites. “Restoring these sites requires a systematic and team-based approach that starts with a solid plan.”

“The interdisciplinary team can include support from the State and other Federal agencies working collaboratively to prioritize project locations and activities that include developing plans and procedures that can be used to reduce potential impacts to public health, livestock and adjacent lands caused by abandoned mines,” said Lake.

Once a comprehensive strategy has been drawn up and finalized, field work such as soil sampling/testing, chemical analyses of water, and in some cases geophysical investigations must be done.

This information provides the data needed to complete a recommendation report for mitigation activities, which the partnering agency can then perform. While the RAMS authorization allows for the transfer of information to determine an appropriate course of action, it doesn’t include execution of the work.  

Historically, funding for the RAMS Program has been $2 million annually Corps-wide, and has primarily been utilized in the western United States. The Sacramento District is currently involved with work and planning at seven mines, including the Mount Diablo Mercury mine in California, and is working collaboratively with the Albuquerque District (the RAMS Program lead district) at the Brooklyn Mine (precious metals mine) in Colorado. Other districts currently managing and executing RAMS projects include Los Angeles and Alaska.

With many of the Corps’ most visible missions centered on flood risk management, it might seem unusual to hear the Corps of Engineers is involved in restoring abandoned mines. However, one of the Corps’ main edicts incudes reducing risks from disasters.

“Abandoned mine sites present some of the most challenging environmental problems today,” said Linda Dreeland, RAMS Program Manager for the Corps. “By providing technical, planning, and design assistance to federal and non-federal partners, the RAMS Program is an excellent supplement to the limited funding that many agencies face when attempting to address their abandoned mine sites.”

With the law now requiring all mining operations to be reclaimed when work is finished, you might think the RAMS mission would be shrinking but miners weren’t required to return the land to a condition similar to before mining until the late-1970’s. That means hundreds of mines were closed long before cleanup was required. It also means the responsibility to clean up these abandoned mines now falls to either the current property owner, or to the government.

 “Mine sites are scattered across federal, state, and private lands, and some agencies are just now beginning to organize their records on the locations and truly understand the extent of their abandoned mine sites,” said Dreeland.

According to Dreeland, word of mouth has resulted in increased interest in the RAMS Program, nationwide, and there is an ever-growing list of funding requests as a result.

“USACE has tremendous technical resources, and a long, successful history working on environmental remediation projects.”

Stay Out, Stay Alive!

When encountering an abandoned mine, the advice to heed is Stay Out, Stay Alive. Before you go poking-about a mine site thinking you’re Indiana Jones on an epic adventure, remember: Indiana Jones is an expert and he very nearly dies every time he goes into a cave or mine. Across the U.S, several people actually do die at abandoned mine sites each year. Whether it is an old quarry filled with placid water, or a labyrinth of miner’s tunnels luring would-be adventure seekers, abandoned mines are death traps.

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