WASHINGTON, D.C. – Leaking mines are an endemic problem in the West that far exceed the capabilities of the Eniveronmental Protection Agency to address alone, Sen. Michael Bennet on Wednesday told a committee discussing a planned bill that would allow organizations to help clean up abandoned mines.
“The bill will encourage states, local governments, nonprofits and companies to clean up abandoned mines,” Bennet said, citing the steps he and other lawmakers from Colorado have taken in working with stakeholders on all sides of the issue to craft the legislation.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing Wednesday to consider legislation relating to land cleanup initiatives, including the draft mine remediation bill.
The draft legislation, known as the Good Samaritan Cleanup of Orphan Mines Act, was previously released by Bennet, D-Colo., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., along with Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.
Their proposed legislation would allow organizations to apply for permits, including some liability protection, to attempt cleanup efforts at abandoned mines. The hearing serves as an opportunity for the senators to gather public input before they plan to officially introduce the bill in the next few months.
Bennet cited the Gold King Mine spill, which released 3 million gallons of toxic mine drainage into the Animas and San Juan rivers, as an example of the urgent need to pass good Samaritan legislation but said the issue is much larger. Gardner, Bennet and Tipton’s efforts to craft good Samaritan legislation preceded the mine spill last August.
Gardner and Bennet, who do not serve on the committee, testified in favor of the draft. Efforts to shepherd good Samaritan legislation through Congress have failed in the past, and both senators expressed optimism that the discussion draft hearing would be the first step toward ultimately having their bipartisan legislation become law.
“This issue has been before us for decades,” Gardner said.
In her testimony, Jennifer Krill, executive director of the nonprofit environmental organization Earthworks, said the draft legislation was a step in the right direction, but further steps – such as a needed reform of the 1872 Mining Law that Bennet and New Mexico’s senators previously proposed – would also address the scope of the problem.
“Good Samaritan initiatives cannot solve the massive problem faced by Western communities and water resources due to abandoned mine pollution,” Krill said in her testimony. “Complicated, expensive cleanups like the Gold King Mine require a dedicated cleanup fund with significant resources, not a good Samaritan. If Congress had reformed the 1872 Mining Law and created an abandoned mine reclamation fund, Silverton, Colorado, would have had the ability to clean up surrounding old mines years before they became a catastrophic threat.”
The legislative hearing had been initially scheduled for the end of January but was rescheduled because of a blizzard. In an interview with The Durango Herald last month, Gardner said the earlier hearing would have given the representatives a chance to include the good Samaritan legislation as an amendment to the energy bill being debated in the U.S. Senate.
“Part of the thinking behind that is that we would’ve already had a congressional hearing on it, and we’d be able to get a feel for where everyone is going to fall on that bill – with the support and opposition,” Gardner said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have that strategy.”
Although the Senate is planning to reconsider the bipartisan energy bill this week, dozens of amendments have been proposed, and the most likely path forward for the discussion draft will be through the committee.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Edward Graham is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.