Next generation of miners could prevent disaster

Posted at 8:17 PM, Dec 14, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-14 22:17:29-05

U.S. lawmakers held a field hearing in Idaho Springs on Monday to address systemic problems in the mining industry and ways to prevent another Gold King Mine disaster.

The EPA has taken blame for the Gold King Mine disaster that unleashed 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage into the Animas River in Durango, turning it orange.  

Lawmakers on the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources meet at the Edgar Experimental Mine, a unique teaching lab at the Colorado School of Mines, where they discussed the need for more mining engineers.

"EPA screwed it up. I don't want them to go into the other mines and screw up again until we know that they have some expertise to not screw up," said Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

Out of the EPA's more than 15,000 employees, lawmakers said not a single one is a mining engineer.

"If the EPA had had a mining engineer at the Gold King Mine when that disaster happened maybe that would have been prevented," said Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs.

Rep. Cresent Hardy, R-NV has introduced a bill to try and fix the problem by redirecting federal dollars to encourage more students to pursue degrees in mining. The bill will provide research grants to incentivize innovation and expertise.

"I think we need to do a better job of letting people understand these are good quality paying jobs, it's a lot of technical expertise," said Rep. Hardy.

"We've also got to instill in kids early on in public schools, that they’re can be some excitement in this type of work," said Rep. Bishop.

The National Academy of Sciences also estimates that approximately 70 percent of the mining industry's technical leaders will reach retirement age in the next 10 to 15 years.

"Over the years it has dropped off," said Colorado School of Mines, Mine Manager Matt Schreiner. "If you're not familiar with it, a father, uncle or other family members, not many people think about mining engineers."

The Colorado School of Mines is one the schools who would benefit from the funding.

"Professors and resources at the school will be able to do more research, we'll be able to bring in better talent for education," said Schreiner.

Schreiner gave Denver7 Reporter Jennifer Kovaleski a tour of his underground classroom in Idaho Springs where students learn firsthand what it takes to be a miner.

"We meet here before they go throughout the rest of the mine to perform different tasks," he said.

Schreiner said the need for future generations of mining engineers is crucial. Especially since there are more professors retiring than students graduating this year.

"Showing them that it's not pickaxe kind of work anymore," he said.

Lawmakers said the bill will reinvest in the next generation of miners and hopefully, prevent another Gold King Mine disaster.

"If we're going to actually regulate these people, you've got to have people who know what the hell they're doing and right now we're not graduating enough people to do that," said Rep. Bishop.