WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and Sen. Mark Udall introduced a bill last week that would protect people looking to clean up mine pollution from most legal liabilities.
“(It would) create a new program to ensure those who are engaging in (cleanup) activities would not have any legal responsibilities for the pollution of the mine,” said Josh Green, spokesman for Tipton, R-Cortez.
The program would fall under the Clean Water Act and encourage “good Samaritans” to become involved in the cleanup of abandoned hard-rock mines throughout the West by allowing them to qualify for cleanup permits.
A “good Samaritan” is a person who voluntarily participates in the cleanup of waste from an abandoned mine, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This individual cannot have any current or past ties with the mine, including ownership or liability for contamination.
The EPA, state government or tribal governments would be able to issue cleanup permits to “good Samaritans” under the proposed bill.
There are more than 7,000 abandoned hard-rock mines in Colorado, according to the Government Accountability Office. This number includes the deserted mines in Silverton, where toxic metal waste is draining into Cement Creek, harming wildlife and aquatic habitats in the area.
Cement Creek is a tributary of the Animas River, which runs through Silverton and Durango and onward to Farmington.
Because of the level of contamination near Cement Creek, the EPA likely can enact the “Superfund,” a designation granting the federal agency broad authority to clean up the site at the responsible parties’ expense.
Many Silverton residents have voiced their opposition to the “Superfund,” claiming it will drive away future mining prospects and dash any hope of returning to their mining days.
However, legal roadblocks have prevented groups such as the Animas River Stakeholders Group from launching some of their “good Samaritan” cleanup plans for the river.
“We haven’t felt that there’s any reasons to make plans,” the group’s co-coordinator Peter Butler said. “We need the liability protection first.”
The Animas River Stakeholders Group is a local volunteer group working to “improve water quality and aquatic habitats in the Animas watershed” through local engagement, according to its website.
Currently, a “good Samaritan” who embarks on a cleaning project of Colorado’s metal-polluted rivers could be liable for any damages or waste left behind, The Durango Herald previously reported.
“For example, if (people) are cleaning up an area and some additional pollution leaks out, they’re accountable for that,” Green said.
The Animas River Stakeholders became involved in “good Samaritan” legislation to address this pollution after its founding in 1994.
“We’ve talked to Udall for years and years,” Butler said. “We’ve been involved (in “good Samaritan” legislation) since the late 1990s, so this is not a new thing for us.”
The group influenced the bill’s language, adding a clause that allows people to withdraw from a project after further investigation.
“You can get a permit and do some investigation, and you can back out of a project,” Butler said. “(It’s possible that you) find out when you’re investigating that it’s infeasible.”
Udall, D-Colo., introduced the same bill in 2009, but it died in a Senate committee. He has not resurrected such a bill until now.
During the 2011-12 session, Udall focused on taking an administrative approach, and that resulted in the EPA issuing new guidelines, said Udall’s spokesman, Mike Saccone.
Udall helped change the EPA’s restrictions on “good Samaritans” by allowing people to complete a cleanup without a Clean Water Act permit. That policy was enacted last December.
The new bill will proceed to a subcommittee hearing within the House Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee and its equivalent in the Senate after Congress returns from its August recess Sept. 9.
“We’re pretty confident we’ll see a subcommittee hearing on it sooner or later,” Green said.
Paige Jones is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.