« Return to this article

Know the West

Good Samaritan bill could clean up old mines


The Clean Water Act inadvertently hampers efforts to clean up thousands of orphaned hardrock mines across the West. Legislation introduced in April by Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., may help solve the problem.

Under the act, anyone who attempts to clean up acid drainage from a mine becomes liable for continuing or future pollution from the mine. That has discouraged volunteer groups like southwestern Colorado’s Animas River Stakeholders group from tackling some of the region’s worst polluters.

Other "Good Samaritan" bills easing legal responsibility for third-party mine-cleanup efforts have languished in Congress. The mining industry has balked at provisions in some, requiring mining companies to fund cleanups. Environmentalists have opposed other bills, such as the one proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in May, because they go too far in waiving liability.

Because of its limited scope, Salazar’s bill could break the gridlock. It proposes a 10-year pilot program confined to historic mine sites in the Animas River drainage, where mining’s impacts on water quality have been studied intensively since 1994. Using a permit system, the bill would protect the Stakeholders and other groups from liability while they conduct partial cleanups on 27 of the dirtiest mines. The original mining operations that created the problems are long gone, and most of the draining mines belong to individual landowners who cannot pay for cleanup.

"I think that a pilot project is a really good way to see how this would work," says Lauren Pagel, policy director of the mining watchdog group Earthworks, adding that the program would allow tweaking down the line, if necessary.