None of us will forget the day an orange plume of mine pollution slowly snaked its way through the Animas River and downtown Durango. We won’t forget the hum of the news helicopters as the world turned its attention on Southwest Colorado, or the uncertainties the spill raised about the quality of our water. It was a day we wouldn’t wish on another community.
Unfortunately, the problem of water pollution from leaking mines is pervasive. In Colorado, there are 13,000 miles of stream listed as impaired from acid-mine drainage and heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. Across the country, that figure rises to 110,000 miles.
These streams and rivers are important to fish, wildlife and drinking water supplies. In fact, 52 percent of these polluted waters fall in sub-watersheds important to drinking water.
In many cases, the source of that pollution comes from one of the hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines across the West. These are mine sites that have no party responsible for cleanup.
Why not just clean them up? Liability and cost, mainly. It is estimated that the cleanup cost for abandoned mines could be as high as $73 billion. And while state and federal governments have worked to clean up some sites, there are more toxic messes than hands to clean them.
But, in an unintended twist, current law essentially prohibits organizations who specialize in river restoration – Good Samaritans such as Trout Unlimited – from tackling these polluted sites.
As written, the law says if you touch the mess you could own it forever, creating liability most organizations and landowners cannot shoulder. And as state and federal budgets get tighter, the dollars and hands to clean these sites dwindle.
So they remain, year after year, dumping pollution into our waterways.
As an angler and conservationist, and as a Coloradan who’s proud of our state’s outstanding outdoor quality of life, that diminished status quo is unacceptable to me.
Moreover, as a business owner whose livelihood – like many others employed in Colorado’s booming outdoor industry – depends on healthy rivers and habitat, I want to make sure we’re protecting the natural resources that drive our economy and make our state and region the envy of the world.
What if we could tackle even a small percentage of the festering pollution plaguing our rivers and streams? Who wouldn’t want to start making our water cleaner?
Thankfully, we may soon have an opportunity to overcome the complicated legal hurdles and get to work on these mine cleanups.
Colorado lawmakers have long led the charge to fix this conundrum, and Congress will soon be considering Good Samaritan legislation. This commonsense change to our laws would help us make measurable improvements to the quality of our water by allowing qualified organizations to clean up abandoned mines.
Good Sam would not be a free pass to any Joe with a backhoe. Being permitted to clean up abandoned mines would be a thorough process, and Good Samaritans would be held accountable to terms of permits issued by the EPA. Nor would it be a pass for irresponsible mining practices. Good Sam would uphold the Clean Water Act for polluters while allowing bona fide third-parties to clean up abandoned mines where a responsible party cannot be identified.
Passing Good Sam would be a creative solution to addressing the widespread impacts of abandoned mines in Colorado and across the West.
While we are at it, we’ll be creating good jobs, healthier habitat for fish and wildlife and more certainty that our water quality is not impaired by hazardous waste seeping from a mine portal.
Durango residents know as well as anyone the devastating impacts water pollution can have on a community. We have bipartisan agreement in Congress that Good Sam could make a real difference in addressing the ticking time bomb of mine pollution. Let’s seize this opportunity and protect Colorado’s water, fish and wildlife and communities by passing Good Sam this year.
Jim Bartschi is president of Scott Fly Rod Co. based in Montrose.