Growing up, I learned quickly to clean up my room. Or else.
It wasn’t always easy. Or pleasant. But I’d made a promise to my parents, and I begrudgingly kept it.
And that is what I expect from others now. If you make a mess, clean it up, and don’t expect others to do it for you.
That is the premise of the bill I sponsored last week with Rep. Dylan Roberts of Avon, designed to protect our precious water quality from adverse mining activity.
Under our bill, HB19-1113, any new mine permit must come with a reclamation plan ensuring pristine water and a cleaned-up surrounding environment. The mine owner will no longer be able to self-bond by submitting the paperwork claiming the owner has the financial ability to tidy up after the mine closes. Instead, the owner must put up security ahead of time.
Several bond instruments are suggested in the bill. Most operators obtain a corporate surety bond, which is basically an insurance policy where a reputable insurance company promises to make good on the reclamation costs if the operator does not.
Too many mining companies working in Colorado have promised to restore the mine’s environment when the company leaves, but then they have gone bankrupt and taxpayers are on the hook for cleanup. That includes, in some cases, paying for a water treatment plan, forever.
According to reports, owners of the Summitville mine in Southern Colorado, Galactic Resources, declared bankruptcy in 1992 after years of polluting the Alamosa River. More than $150 million was spent to clean the site; the company paid a settlement of $30 million and treatment costs continue to rise. The EPA, through a Superfund declaration, has paid most of the costs, but in 2022, Colorado taxpayers will start paying $2.2 million per year for water treatment.
That should never happen again. Mining is important to Southwest Colorado, so we did not want to run a bill putting the industry out of business. Our water is just as important, so the bill makes sure both can happen: a thriving mining industry and clean water.
This bill would not have stopped what happened at the Gold King Mine. Though the water we saw in the Animas River was an unforgettable shade of yellow, the incident showed what is often inside the abandoned mines. This bill only affects new permits.
The Ouray Silver Mine has been working on the issue of mining and its relationship with clean water, and has been forward-thinking enough to operate in a manner that is both profitable for them and good for the environment.
Rep. Roberts and I ran this bill last year, but it was blocked in the Senate. We listened to our opponents, and we made some changes. The most important change we made was to make the end date more flexible. Mine owners said it was just too difficult to predict exactly how long it would take to restore the clean water and environment. The date now must be “reasonably foreseeable.”
We also added in more clarification about Good Samaritan participation. If a group wants to re-mine a polluting site while it does a bigger cleanup of a historic mine, then a Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety (DRMS) permit is required. This bill would not change the situation or prevent the cleanup from happening.
With these provisions added, the DRMS did not oppose the bill. We have strong support from Western Slope counties and cities, environmental groups, water districts, water providers, and many business and community groups. It passed with strong bipartisan support through the House and is now on its way to the Senate.
Colorado can do it both. We can support the mining industry in Colorado and we can have clean water.
When we encourage our mine owners to clean up after themselves, we all win.
Barbara McLachlan represents State House District 59. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. During the legislative session, Rep. McLachlan and Sen. Coram share this column on alternate weeks.