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Sen. Udall seeks to ease Good Samaritan mine cleanups

The abandoned Pennsylvannia Mine in Summit County, Colorado, is a significant source of pollution. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.

Colorado lawmaker tries to rally support on Senate floor; asks EPA for relief

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Sen. Mark Udall last week renewed his efforts to find ways to enable Good Samaritans to clean up some of the many abandoned mine sites scattered around Colorado and the West.

In addition to trying to rally political support with a speech on the Senate floor, Udall sent a letter to the EPA asking for a change in policy that would give Good Samaritans some legal certainty when it comes to the liability for cleanup efforts. Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Barbara Boxer of California also signed the letter.

Certain legal hooks in the Clean Water Act make it challenging for volunteers, so Udall is looking for ways that would enable Good Samaritans to clean up those contaminated sites without assuming full legal liability for contamination they did not create.

“Hardrock mine pollution is a terrible reminder of irresponsible mining in the West.  Where Good Samaritans are willing and able to responsibly clean up pollution, leaving our treasured landscapes and watersheds better than they were before, we should do everything we can to support them,” Udall said.

“Good Samaritans are too valuable of a resource to keep on the sidelines. Congress should do what is necessary to bring their efforts to bear on the cleanup of abandoned mine pollution,” Udall concluded in the speech. “Good Samaritans can’t solve all of our abandoned mine pollution problems, but we can’t afford to turn away those willing to help any longer.”

The mines pollute watersheds and endanger the health of communities and wildlife that depend on the clean water downstream.  Udall has advocated for a fix to this problem since his days in the House.

In 2009, Udall introduced the Good Samaritan Cleanup of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act  in the Senate (S.1777), which would free Good Samaritan volunteers to help clean up abandoned mines without taking on the liability.  Since then, Udall has met with Good Samaritan groups to discuss their efforts, and he continues to work with the EPA to find a way to legally protect these groups that are willing and able to responsibly clean up polluted sites around the state.

By some estimates, there are more than 7,000 abandoned hardrock mines in Colorado, and more than 160,000 across the West. In some locations — including the Snake River Basin in Summit County, Colorado — acidic water still drains from these mines, polluting entire watersheds. As many as 10,000 miles of streams are impaired from acid mine drainage, according to the EPA.

Udall illustrated some of the cleanup challenges faced by volunteers by citing an example of a cleanup effort in Southern Colorado, where Trout Unlimited wants to operate a bioreactor to improve water quality.

But under the Clean Water Act, the bioreactor is considered a point-source of pollution, requiring a discharge permit under the law. Udall said the nonprofit group cannot meet the stringent permit requirements without investing in far more expensive water treatment options. Nor can it afford to assume the liability that comes with a permit.

“Federal law is, in effect, sidelining some of our best hopes for remediation,” Udall said.

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2 Responses

  1. Yet at the same time, there are members who want to do away with the EPA.

  2. I strongly support Sen. Udall’s approach on this issue. The “All or Nothing” environment created by current statutes does not take into consideration that if a reasonable percentage of a pollution source is cleaned up, natural processes will often clean up the rest. The other aspect is that if the mechanism of dispersal is halted, the concentration of harmful waste is reduced in areas downhill and downstream, achieving the same positive results.
    Preventing someone from cleaning up 10% of a problem because they cannot come up with the vast funding and resources to do 100% is not a practical or intelligent approach. Sen. Udall’s approach must be tried and then studied to see the degree of positive effect.

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