Project Management Institute

Mine sweepers

long after mines are shut down or abandoned, cleanup project teams must prepare for the unpredictable



Settling ponds at Cement Creek in Silverton, Colorado, USA help reduce the acidity of mining wastewater.


From tunnel collapses to fires, mining accidents are tragically frequent. But the cleanup projects that follow the end of mining operations, even if decades later, are proving to be fraught with danger as well. While a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) remediation project team excavated an abandoned gold mine last August in mountainous Colorado, USA, a portion of the mine's bedrock face broke apart and released about 3 million gallons (11 million liters) of acidic water that had been trapped in the mine into local rivers. The cleanup effort continued through the first quarter of this year.

“As a project manager, you have to be able to respond to changing field conditions.”

—Elizabeth Shaeffer, U.S. Department of the Interior, Denver, Colorado, USA


For project managers working on mine remediation initiatives, risks include the handling and disposing of toxic materials, the unpredictable nature of project sites and long project schedules (sometimes 40 years or more). The projects can be complicated by a stakeholder landscape crowded with government agencies and concerned local residents.

The fact that remediation projects are usually underground makes it tough for team members to identify and evaluate potential problems, says Elizabeth Shaeffer, senior environmental protection specialist, office of surface mining reclamation and enforcement, western region, U.S. Department of the Interior, Denver, Colorado, USA. “Historic underground mine maps sometimes don't tell the complete story. Some maps are much more detailed than others,” says Ms. Shaeffer, who has managed seven abandoned coal mine land reclamation initiatives since 2012. “As a project manager, you have to be able to respond to changing field conditions.”


“Sometimes you go into your design and you realize you need more data, which necessitates another cycle of data collection and design.”

—Eileen Dornfest, MWH Global, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA


Project practitioners need to recognize that environmental conditions and safety concerns vary from site to site, says Eileen Dornfest, a project manager and engineering geologist at construction and consulting firm MWH Global in Fort Collins, Colorado, USA. She has worked on 10 mine remediation initiatives, including several ongoing uranium mine reclamation projects in the southwestern U.S.

Project budgets and goals also vary dramatically. A small-scale remediation initiative to remove a specific environmental toxin while keeping the site permanently off-limits to the public may cost as little as US$1 million for the full project life cycle. More complex projects that involve relocating streams or constructing water treatment facilities can have budgets of over US$200 million. Many mine reclamation projects have a comprehensive goal of restoring the land surrounding a mine to its pre-mine condition. Each mine remediation project requires its own site characterization and risk assessment, in addition to a customized design plan. Some or all of these may need updating and re-evaluation as the project progresses, says Ms. Dornfest.

“The whole process is not quite linear,” she says. “It's iterative in nature. Sometimes you go into your design and you realize you need more data, which necessitates another cycle of data collection and design.”


A truck waters roads to reduce dust at an iron ore mine in the U.S. state of Minnesota.

That data can encompass details on complex stakeholder expectations and concerns. In the U.S., where abandoned mines often fall under state and/or federal jurisdiction, organizations contracted to plan and execute mine remediation projects usually must interact with state government agencies, a federal regulatory agency, the local community and sometimes nongovernmental environmental groups.

With so many players in the mix, it is essential to have a communication and community outreach strategy in place early, says Ms. Dornfest. It should include an analysis of which stakeholders need regular updates and which only need information at milestones, and the best ways to keep the public informed about progress, Ms. Dornfest says.

“Getting out in front of the community is a big part of a successful project.” —Christina Couch

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