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Today, I testified before the House Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Energy and Minerals.

The hearing title: Abandoned Mined Lands: Innovative Solutions for Restoring the Environment, Improving Safety and Creating Jobs.

In this case, “restoring the environment, improving safety and creating jobs” are issues all stakeholders can agree are desirable, at least in the abstract.  What counts as “innovative”, however, is at issue. 

We can see where some very limited exemptions from Clean Water Act liability would encourage abandoned mine cleanup.  Some in industry, and their advocates in Congress, apparently want to use abandoned mine cleanup as an excuse for wholesale exemptions to environmental liability of any sort. 

Our fear is that, with broader liability exemptions, major mining companies will replace one problem (an old abandoned mine) with an even bigger one (a modern open-pit mine).

An excerpt of my testimony is below.  You can read my full testimony here.  All testimony, and eventually video of the hearing, are available on the Subcommittee website.

Earthworks has supported several legislative proposals that have been introduced in previous Congresses in an attempt to resolve this question about liability under the Clean Water Act. There is a narrow point of apparent agreement among some of the conservation organizations involved with abandoned mine clean up, the western States, and some industry representatives that a waiver of Clean Water Act liability is warranted to correct the damage that is occurring from the polluted mine sites. Earthworks does not support waiving other environmental laws for the purposes of fostering “Good Samaritan” clean ups of abandoned mine sites.

There is not a liability problem with most other environmental laws, so waiving them in order to eliminate liability for abandoned mines clean up would be inappropriate. Where liability does exist under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as CERCLA and commonly known as Superfund, there are existing mechanisms available through the Environmental Protection Agency to facilitate clean up, such as Administrative Orders on Consent.

According to a State of Montana study of abandoned mines, each million dollars spent will create 65 jobs. Many of these jobs are good, high paying jobs that rural communities need in these tough economic times. In addition to job creation, restoration activity would also take degraded lands and put them into productive use. This will benefit local communities and the private landowners who have abandoned mines on their property, and help communities who currently must treat their water supplies for heavy metals and other pollution from abandoned mines.

As part of its FY2012 budget, the Obama administration has proposed a 1% reclamation fee on all hardrock mining, similar to the fee paid by coal mines. This fee would generate $200 million per year to fund abandoned mine restoration, creating an estimated 13,000 jobs per year for those in the mining industry. In addition to a reclamation fee, the administration proposed a modest royalty to be paid to the owners of minerals taken from public lands the taxpayer.