Protecting Good Samaritan mine cleanups a wise move

“We think it’s a step in the right direction. We need a step further to make it really effective,” said Elizabeth Russell, watershed-restoration coordinator for Trout Unlimited, who has been working with local focus groups seeking ways to clean up mine drainage in places such as Peru Creek near Keystone.

www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_6283643

By The Denver Post Editorial Board


Dotted across Colorado are hundreds of silent polluters that, drip by drip, have fouled our streams and watersheds for more than a century.

They should be everybody’s concern, but most are nobody’s responsibility.

They are among the 23,000 abandoned Colorado mines and mining sites that are the legacy of our state’s first economic boom in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Across the country, there are an estimated 500,000 abandoned mines. By some calculations, 16,000 miles of Western waterways are tainted by mine waste.

Mines were built quickly and went out of business just as fast, victims of pinched-out veins, undercapitalization and fluctuating ore prices. Their useful lives are long in the past, and their owners are long gone, so there’s no one responsible for cleaning them up. But the chemicals used to process ore – like cyanide, arsenic and mercury – and other substances released by mining remain.

With no owners to hold responsible, and with the estimated cleanup bill of $32 billion way beyond the capabilities of the federal or state governments, Westerners long have wrestled with how to even start cleaning up.

One promising answer, interestingly enough, is volunteers.

Many conservation and community groups have been interested in cleaning up mines and streams, but the threat of liability has hampered such efforts.

Cooperation between private groups and government agencies has permitted some citizen cleanup of old mines on federal land, but liability concerns continue to hamper other cleanups.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month took a step toward solving that problem by approving procedures under which private groups can do limited cleanup – such as removing waste rock and diverting runoff – under agency supervision without fear of being sued and held liable for cleanup of an entire mine site. But the procedures don’t apply to work that might be covered by the Clean Water Act. Congress needs to take care of that problem.

“We think it’s a step in the right direction. We need a step further to make it really effective,” said Elizabeth Russell, watershed-restoration coordinator for Trout Unlimited, who has been working with local focus groups seeking ways to clean up mine drainage in places such as Peru Creek near Keystone.

Colorado Rep. Mark Udall introduced legislation in 2005 that would protect “Good Samaritan” cleanups. It didn’t pass. He called the EPA’s move a “harbinger” of full reforms needed to allow mine-site cleanups. Udall has been studying the issues with Western governors, and we hope he continues to make a run at the problem.

Washington lawmakers also ought to give a serious look to another proposal that would impose royalties on hard-rock mining and use the revenue to help pay for reclamation.

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One Response to Protecting Good Samaritan mine cleanups a wise move

  1. […] are far less stable historic threats and some rather stupid laws that see to it it stays that way Protecting Good Samaritan mine cleanups a wise move […]

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