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Udall Introduces Bill to Help Clean up Abandoned Hardrock Mines

New Bill Would Establish Permit Program to Help ‘Good Samaritans’ Effectively Clean up Mines in Colorado

Posted: Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Washington, D.C. - Today, U.S. Senator Mark Udall announced the introduction of a bill to help "Good Samaritans" who want to clean up abandoned mines but can't without taking on liability under the Clean Water Act. Abandoned mines are a serious environmental and safety hazard throughout Colorado and the West. Senator Udall's bill would open up a path for community groups and others to get these mines cleaned up by establishing a permit program that would enable volunteers to reduce the pollution flowing from an abandoned mine without being exposed to full liability under the Clean Water Act.

Senator Udall's bill builds on several years of work and discussion with groups ranging from environmental organizations to the mining industry to the Western Governors' Association. Unlike previous Good Samaritan bills, Senator Udall's legislation would address liability issues only under the Clean Water Act - rather than addressing those issues under several environmental laws. The reason is that there are administrative avenues and options available to Good Samaritans to address compliance with other laws. But addressing these liability issues under the Clean Water Act requires an act of Congress.

"This is an elegant and common sense solution to one of the biggest obstacles Good Samaritans face when they want to get these abandoned mines cleaned up," Senator Udall said. "Abandoned mines are a menace to the environment and public health and to the communities that rely on water flowing downstream. There are several groups in Colorado who care about their communities and want to protect them and who are ready to go as soon as we have legislation to help them get started. I'm dying to turn them loose so they can get to work."

Specifically, Senator Udall's legislation would cover hardrock mines (not coal) and associated facilities that are no longer actively mined and not on the national priority list (NPL) under Superfund. It would:
• Set up a new program enabling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or a state or tribal government with an approved Clean Water Act permitting program to issue clean-up permits to a person or entity not involved in creating the polluting mine.
• Require an applicant to submit a detailed plan for remediation of the site. After an opportunity for public comments, the EPA or other permitting authority could issue a permit if it determined that implementing the plan would not worsen water quality and could result in improving it toward meeting applicable water quality standards.
• Enable a permit holder to clean up the mine only as specified in the remediation plan. When finished, the permit would expire, ending the Good Samaritan's responsibility for the project.
• Require EPA to report on the bill to Congress in nine years, enabling Congress to consider whether to renew or modify the legislation.

Tuesday evening, Senator Udall delivered the following statement about the bill on the Senate floor:

Mr. President, today I am introducing legislation designed to help promote the cleanup of abandoned and inactive hardrock mines that are a menace to the environment and public health throughout the country, but especially in the West.

In previous sessions of Congress when I was a member of the House of Representatives, I introduced similar bills. Following the introduction of those previous bills, revisions were made to incorporate a number of changes developed in consultation with a wide range of interested parties. These parties included representatives of the Western Governors' Association, the Environmental Protection Agency, the hardrock mining industry, and environmental groups.

The bill I am introducing today is also the product of further consultations. It represents years of effort to reach agreement on establishing a program to advance the cleanup of polluted water from abandoned mines.

For over one hundred years, miners and prospectors have searched for and developed valuable hardrock minerals, such as gold, silver, and copper. Hardrock mining has played a key role in the history of Colorado and many other states. The resulting mineral wealth has been an important aspect of our economy and the development of essential products.

However, as all westerners know, this history has too often been marked by a series of "boom" times followed by "busts," when mines were no longer profitable. When these busts came, too often the miners would abandon their work and move on, seeking riches over the next mountain. The resulting legacy of unsafe open mine shafts and acid mine drainages can be seen throughout the country and especially on the western public lands where mineral development was encouraged to help settle our region.

The problems caused by abandoned and inactive mines are very real and very large. They include acidic water draining from old tunnels; heavy metals leaching into streams, killing fish and tainting water supplies; open vertical mine shafts; dangerous highwalls; large open pits; waste rock piles that are unsightly and dangerous; and hazardous dilapidated structures.

And, unfortunately, many of our current environmental laws, designed to mitigate the impact from operating hardrock mines, are of limited effectiveness when applied to abandoned and inactive mines. As a result, many of these old mines go on polluting streams and rivers and potentially risking the health of people who live nearby or downstream.

Right now there are two serious obstacles to progress. One is a serious lack of funds for cleaning up sites for which no private person or entity can be held liable. The other obstacle is legal.

While the Clean Water Act is one of the most effective and important of our environmental laws, as applied to abandoned hardrock mines, it can mean that someone undertaking to clean up an abandoned or inactive mine will be exposed to the same liability that would apply to a party responsible for creating the site's problems in the first place. As a result, would-be "good Samaritans" understandably have been unwilling to volunteer their services to clean up abandoned and inactive mines.

The Governors of our western States have recognized the need for action to address this serious problem. They have adopted bipartisan resolutions on this subject, such as the position adopted in the 2007 resolution entitled "Cleaning Up Abandoned Mines." In this resolution, the governors urge Congress to take action to address liability issues and funding concerns. The governors sent a letter in November 2007 expressing support for the previous version of the bill that I am introducing today.

The bill I am filing today will help address this impediment and make it easier for volunteers - who had no role in creating the problem - to help clean up these sites and improve the environment. It does so by providing a new permit program whereby volunteers can, under an approved plan, reduce the water pollution flowing from an abandoned mine. At the same time, volunteers will not be exposed to the full liability and ongoing responsibility provisions of the Clean Water Act.

Unlike other bills that have been introduced on this topic, my bill only addresses Clean Water Act liability and does not waive any other environmental law. That is because I do not believe that we need to go that far. There are administrative avenues and options available to good Samaritans to address compliance with other environmental laws that may apply at these sites. However, such administrative options are not available for Clean Water Act liability. So my bill only addresses this restriction on moving forward on projects to clean up water releases.

The new permit proposed in this bill would help address problems that have frustrated federal and state agencies throughout the country. As population growth continues near these old mines, more and more risks to public health and safety are likely to occur. We simply must begin to address this issue - not only to improve the environment, but also to ensure that our water supplies are safe and usable.

This bill does not address all the concerns some would-be Good Samaritans may have about initiating cleanup projects. I am committed to continue working to address those additional concerns, through additional legislation and in other ways. But the bill I am filing today can make a real difference, and I think it deserves approval without unnecessary delay.

 

 

By: Tara Trujillo 202-224-5941
 
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