According to the Environmental Protection Agency, runoff from abandoned hardrock mines – more than 500,000 with an estimated cleanup cost ranging from $36 to $72 billion – affects 40 percent of headwaters in the western United States.
The Clean Water Act places the burden of cleanup squarely on the owners of the property and/or another “Potentially Responsible Party” (PRP). The Clean Water Act is an excellent policy for most forms of water pollution; however, many old mines ceased operations decades ago and the responsibly party is long gone. In legal terms, if there is no “potentially responsible party” then these mines are considered abandoned or orphaned sites, creating a legal quagmire.
Well-intended groups (i.e., third-party entities such as nonprofit organizations, state agencies, watershed groups, etc.) could voluntarily clean up hardrock mine sites. Unfortunately, those interested in fixing the problem face daunting obstacles because of unrealistic permitting requirements and burdensome liability rules. In short, any entity that constructs a treatment system such as a bioreactor becomes liable for the acid mine discharge in perpetuity under the Clean Water Act. The current laws aren’t enough to shield well-intended groups from potentially devastating financial responsibility for future pollution generated from the sites. They also lack adequate funding to pay for the perpetual costs associated with permit compliance and operating a water treatment facility. Each of these obstacles would be resolved through the legislation this coalition supports.
There are two categories of mine-related water quality problems: point-source and non-point-source. The laws governing their potential cleanup efforts differ. Groups can perform non-point source cleanups free of permanent liability and this is currently being done around the nation. But, when acid mine water discharges directly from the actual portal into the mountain (the adit) and the inner mine workings, the toxic ground water requires treatment and also a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act. This is considered a point-source cleanup.
We have the technology to clean up many abandoned mines and their toxic heritage. Scores of successful non-point-source cleanup projects have been completed in the San Juan Mountains. But efforts to install a bioreactor (treatment system) to address mine discharge have halted projects due to liability concerns. To learn more about non-point-source cleanups, visit here.
To move forward with point-source cleanups, groups wanting to help fix the problem need stronger legal protections to shield them from unforeseen lawsuits and long-term liability concerns. Under current Clean Water Act laws, compliance and liability issues remain a barrier. Legislation supported by the San Juan Clean Water Coalition would remove these obstacles.
Bipartisan legislation supported by the San Juan Clean Water Coalition offers hope for tackling the liability issue for point-source mine cleanups. It gives us a path forward to reclaiming these sites and protecting our water resources. We believe the uncertainties regarding the Clean Water Act can best be addressed by new legislation that provides a clear direction for abandoned mine cleanups.
In 2015, Colorado’s Senators Bennet and Gardner, and Representative Tipton, have once again expressed an interest in addressing acid mine drainage for the citizens of Colorado, and the nation, whose communities are being negatively affected. These delegates continue to discuss the best possible version of Good Samaritan legislation in an effort to find the most appropriate and potentially successful bill. If and when enacted, Good Sam would allow local entities to finally deal with point-source causes of impaired water quality in their own backyards.
Join the San Juan Clean Water Coalition now. By doing so, you are supporting legislation that allows groups to clean up abandoned mines throughout the west without fear of assuming permanent liability for a problem they didn’t create. Successful federal legislation requires communities and broad interests to stand united for the cause. Be a part of the solution for clean water. As a coalition, we are encouraging Congress to pass legislation, removing the legal impediment to groups who are working to comply with the Clean Water Act.
To learn more about the legislative history of abandoned mine clean up, go to www.goodsamaritaninfo.org. We urge you to take action now and join the San Juan Clean Water Coalition.