Federal legislation to protect those who take on the critical and admirable work of cleaning up mining-related pollution has been necessary and unattainable for more than a decade, and communities across the county have suffered at the impasse that liability creates. Silverton is a prime example. Rep. Scott Tipton’s recent commitment to pushing for a Good Samaritan protection bill may signal long-awaited good things for the town and others facing similar challenges.
The mining activity that defined Silverton’s emergence and, for many decades, continued existence is rich in a multi-disciplinary history. The economic, social and environmental effects of mining in Silverton are complex, long-lasting and wide-ranging – some positive, some less so. Among the more vexing is mine-related cleanup, and the conundrum has been historically deepened by the fact that those who set about to mitigate pollution from mining activity are potentially on the hook for that pollution, whether or not they are the source of it. That has hamstrung clean-up of mining pollution in Cement and Mineral creeks near Silverton.
Tipton’s promise to carry the measure is welcome news to the Animas River Stakeholders Group, which has long sought to address the problem but has struggled with the liability issue. Tipton’s measure could add welcome momentum to Sen. Mark Udall’s, D-Colo., enduring efforts to enact Good Samaritan legislation. Forging an agreement on common-sense measures such as one to remove pollution liability from those who are simply there to clean up the mess is an encouraging if rare occurrence.
Tipton has a few notable cooperative notches in his policy-making belt, including a measure to protect the Hermosa Creek Watershed as well as his bipartisan support for the Chimney Rock National Monument designation. Adding his voice to an ongoing and paralyzing practical problem such as mine-pollution liability would give Tipton further credit as a solution-seeker, not simply a partisan decision-maker.
It would also give much-needed help to the streams that are currently carrying mining pollution into the Animas River from Sunnyside Mining Corp.’s American Tunnel, in the Gladstone area. While mining activity ceased in 1991, the tunnel has been discharging hundreds of gallons of heavy metal- and mineral-laden water per minute. That has damaged water quality and fisheries downstream. The Animas River Stakeholders Group, a broad-based cohort of concerned residents, lawmakers and experts on water issues has convened to address the problem. Tipton’s legislation may help push that discussion into long-awaited action.
The liability hurdle that current law places between those who want to clean up a past wrong – especially someone else’s – and the cleanup itself is one that needs to cleared. There is nothing to gain from keeping such an impediment in place, and, in the meantime, significant and critical water resources continue to bear the negative effects of long-ago activities. Tipton – and Udall – deserve encouragement for their efforts on behalf of Good Samaritans in Silverton and everywhere.