Pollution of U.S. Lands Seen as Festering Crisis


Ground and water pollution on the nation’s public lands is so extensive and so toxic that cleaning such sites could be “the next big environmental balloon mortgage payment” facing U.S. taxpayers, according to a new congressional report.

The study details a welter of problems on land administered by the Interior Department, ranging from the gradual leaking of cyanide, mercury and other poisons from old mines and oil wells to the hazards posed by unexploded bombs in areas once used as military firing ranges.

The study adds that because its workers are extensively exposed to these toxic hazards, the occupational injury rate for Interior Department employees is higher than that of any other federal agency--four times higher than Energy Department contract employees who work at some of the most dangerous facilities in the world.

Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which released the report, said the Interior Department’s sites have been allowed to fester, largely uncleaned and uncounted, while the attention of Congress and government officials has been focused on toxic waste problems at other federal sites--the nation’s military installations and its nuclear-weapons production facilities.


“We are facing a public safety and financial crisis that could rival what we found at our nation’s nuclear weapons facilities,” Glenn said of the Interior Department’s pollution problem.

The White House is expected to announce plans today to establish an interagency task force to set priorities and coordinate funding for a federal cleanup. In the government’s first broad estimate of the cost of cleaning up all the nation’s polluted facilities, Alice Rivlin, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, is expected to attach a bill of “hundreds of billions of dollars” to the task.

Rivlin is to co-chair the federal task force, along with White House Environmental Policy Office Director Kathleen McGinty.

That task force will help oversee an inventory of polluted Interior Department lands initiated last spring by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. The department has listed 432 sites as polluted; just four of those sites are on the EPA’s list of high-priority Superfund projects. But the number of polluted sites could rise into the tens of thousands as government experts complete their surveys.


“We are acutely aware of the serious management problems on the public lands that are before us--the problems that 12 years of neglect have left to be addressed,” Interior Department spokesman Jay Ziegler said Monday in response to the Senate report. “We’re committed to addressing these issues seriously, to doing better. And some of this costs money. That’s going to be a serious issue.”

The Interior Department will spend almost $64 million this year to clean up pollution on its lands, and has proposed to spend $72 million next year for such cleanups. The Energy Department, which has undertaken a massive effort to clear its nuclear weapons complex of toxic and radioactive waste, has said that its own cleanup would cost from $160 billion to $200 billion over the next 25 years.

“I don’t think we’ve realized the enormity of the problem until now,” Glenn said Monday of the Interior Department’s effort. “This could not be done out of their existing funding.”

The Interior Department is the nation’s largest landowner, controlling 20% of the nation’s surface land and 62% of subsurface area, where stores of water and minerals lie. Most of that land, and thus the bulk of its newfound environmental problems, lie in the West. However, the report gives no state-by-state breakdown of the sites.


Among the most numerous potential sites are abandoned mines on land the Interior Department has leased for nominal fees to mining companies. In efforts aimed at increasing federal revenues and raising funds for cleanup efforts, the Clinton Administration and some in Congress have sought sharp increases in mining royalties.

Glenn’s committee concluded that abandoned mines and smelters on federal lands have driven soil, air and water contamination to dangerously high levels, in many cases killing grazing cattle and horses and causing significant damage to wildlife as well. They warned that children have been found playing in many of the same areas.

A private organization, the Mineral Policy Institute, has estimated that there are more than 550,000 abandoned hard-rock mines on Department of Interior lands, many of them leaching arsenic, asbestos, cadmium, cyanide, lead, mercury and sulfur into nearby streams, lakes and ground water. Cleaning them could cost between $33 billion and $77 billion. And the federal government could be left to pay much of the bill, since many of the mining companies who failed to clean up after themselves have disappeared. Those who have not disappeared are seeking through the courts to make the federal government liable for cleanup.

The Senate study estimated that as many as 22,520 oil and gas wells that are no longer productive threaten to contaminate surrounding soil and ground water because they have not been plugged. The estimated cost of capping these wells is about $300 million, the committee concluded, and the Interior Department could be liable for some of that cost.


Landfills that were either established illegally or have since closed also dot national lands, and at least one, located in New Mexico, has been designated a Superfund site after hydrogen sulfide releases made local populations sick and local ground water was found to be contaminated.

In addition, the study found that on lands controlled by the Fish and Wildlife Service, there are at least 20 sites in 12 states that either have or are suspected to have unexploded ordnance. Almost half of those have been acquired by the Interior Department from the military, but many of them are Interior Department lands that were leased to the Pentagon.