The Nevada Environmental Commission created an emergency fund to prevent environmental disasters when bankrupt miners shut down.
Bureau of Mining Regulation and Reclamation Chief David Gaskin said several mining companies have been forced to shut down and more than one has abandoned its mine site.
When that happens, he said mining ponds containing dangerous, toxic chemicals can quickly overflow and cause irreparable damage to the environment.
"Without constant fluid management, these ponds may overflow in a matter of days or even hours," said Gaskin.
He told commissioners those mines are required to carry surety bonds to cover costs of shutting down, making the ponds and other facilities safe, managing potential environmental hazards and reclamation. The problem, he said, is it can take days or even weeks to get the bond money when a mine shuts down due to bankruptcy or abandonment.
"This is not for normal closure and reclamation," he said. "This is for when there's nobody left."
In that situation, the state has to step in immediately.
"This is cash that is ready, its accessible and can be used on a Sunday night," said Nevada Mining Association Director Russ Fields, who support the fund.
Gaskin said the mining bureau's existing surplus funds are being depleted by sites such as the Arimetco mine, the old Anaconda copper operation near Yerington. He said that facility cost the state upwards of $50,000 a month to operate when the company first abandoned it. The monthly bill is still more than $20,000.
He said in addition to Yerington, the state is taking care of mines at Paradise Peak, County Line and Ketchup Flat, but those emergency management operations are costing little.
The commission voted unanimously to assess Nevada mines that have leach heaps, collecting ponds and other operations involving toxic liquid wastes to build up $1 million by April 15, 2002. That money will be used as a revolving source of cash to operate mines such as Yerington's until bond money is forfeited to the state. Then the bond money will be used to replenish the fund.
The fund goes along with rules approved by the commission last month, which require mining companies to include "interim fluid management" funding in their security bonds.
Mining companies will be assessed anywhere from $1,000 to $36,000 depending on the size of their operation.
"This excludes sites without ponds or with ponds that are non-toxic," Gaskin said.
The situation became a potential problem for the state when the mining industry went into an economic slump two years ago.
Gaskin said there are about 35 mining operations in one form of bankruptcy proceedings or another in Nevada. He said fewer than 100 active mining operations have water pollution control permits but that some of those could end up suddenly shut down - forcing the state to step in to manage the ponds on short notice.
The problem with the mining ponds is that they contain high concentrations of cyanide or acids that are used to help remove valuable ore from rock. Cyanide is used to remove gold from surrounding rock and sulfuric acid is used in mining copper.