Good Samaritan groups to get better protection from Clean Water Act liability
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — New guidance from top EPA officials could speed remediation of abandoned Colorado mine sites by clarifying the terms of cleanup agreements between the federal agency and Good Samaritan groups.
The memo from EPA national headquarters to the agency’s regional offices extends the legal liability protections in cleanup agreements and specifies that Good Samaritans are generally not responsible for obtaining a Clean Water Act permit during or after a successful cleanup conducted according to a Good Samaritan agreement with EPA. Read the memo here.
The complex structure of the Clean Water Act has, in some cases, prevented community groups from proceeding with cleanups because of concerns over future liability for pollution.
Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, has been leading efforts to facilitate more protection for voluntary remediation efforts. He announced the new EPA guidance this week, saying that it required persistent communication with the agency, as well as direct appeals to the White House.
“This is a powerful statement coming from the EPA and I’m glad they decided to stand with me on this issue … True Good Samaritans can feel comfortable pursuing cleanups and partnerships with EPA knowing they won’t be responsible for pollution when they get done,” Udall said.
There are more than 7,000 abandoned mine sites in Colorado, many of them leaching toxic heavy metals into streams to the detriment of aquatic life. Udall said the new EPA guidance could ease cleanup projects at the Pennsylvania Mine site along Peru Creek, in Summit County, as well as at the Tiger Mine, along the Arkansas near Leadville, in the Animas River Basin near Silverton and along Willow Creek, near Creede.
“This new policy, which follows a multiyear effort I led, is welcome news for my constituents and Good Samaritans everywhere. Abandoned mines in Colorado and across the West threaten our waterways and the environment,” Udall said in a prepared statement.
“I am glad the EPA has partnered with me to develop this policy, which will free up Good Samaritans – like Trout Unlimited, the Animas River Stakeholders Group and the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee – to help protect our streams, waterways and drinking supplies. We still have work to do to address these abandoned mines, but this is a welcome step in the right direction that will unleash the power of local groups and volunteers.”
“I commend the EPA and Administrator Lisa Jackson for joining with me to leverage the resources of groups committed to cleaning up abandoned mine pollution. This policy clearly demonstrates their desire to protect Western watersheds. I look forward to working with Good Samaritans to evaluate the effectiveness of these clarifications and determine if other improvements are needed,” Udall said. “In the meantime, I plan to continue to work to secure additional federal funds for mine reclamation and the cleanup of abandoned mines.”
“Abandoned mines represent the single-greatest, least-understood threat to clean water and fish in the West,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited.
Udall, who serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has been one of the leading voices in Congress on cleaning up and remediating abandon mine sites since he joined Congress in 1999. The EPA’s memo stems from Udall’s work over the past two years to find a way to give Good Samaritans additional protections as they continue their important work.
Udall also recently visited a mine site in San Juan County to hear about how additional legal certainty for Good Samaritans would help local groups remediate mines.
Last month Udall implored the U.S. House of Representatives to take up the legislation he co-sponsored that will allow Colorado and other states more flexibility in utilizing federal funds to clean up abandoned hard rock mining sites. The legislation, S.897, would allow states like Colorado to use funds that were previously only available for the reclamation of coal mines to be used for hard rock mines as well.
The EPA guidance memo: