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Today, Senator Udall (D-CO) and Rep. Tipton (R-CO) introduced the Good Samaritan Cleanup of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act of 2013 (Good Sam). Earthworks welcomes this common sense bipartisan solution to one of the most pervasive pollution problems in the West- the enormous damage to water quality caused by acid drainage from approximately 500,000 abandoned mines. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that 40% of Western headwaters have pollution from mining. Clean up costs total an estimated $32-$72 billion.

Good Sam Visits the Pottery Barn

The Udall/Tipton bill provides one long sought solution: allow conservation organizations to perform their own cleanup. Much of the hard work and progress in this area belongs to our friends at Trout Unlimited. Preventing these good samaritans from taking on the monumental task of cleaning up abandoned mines are quirks in the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund law).

Taken together, the effect of these laws- originally designed to prevent and punish polluters- is a lot like a version of the Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you bought it. Except this one is you touch it, you bought it. Put another way, even well meaning persons who try improving pollution levels at a site may find themselves on the legal and financial hook.

This Udall/Tipton Good Sam legislation will establish a new CWA program allowing the EPA to issue permits for approved plans to clean up abandoned hardrock mines. With the permit comes a release from liability. EPA will not issue these permits to individuals or operators responsible for the pollution in the first place.

How Long is Forever?

As it is, taxpayers now find themselves on the hook for the continual monitoring and treatment of polluted water from mines that long ago ceased operation. In many cases, as in the Zortman-Landusky mine in Montana, corporate bankruptcy has left a $33 million tab the rest of us pick up for long-term water treatment. The woeful inadequacy of bonds and other financial assurances offered by mine operators to cover the costs of their mess pale in comparison to the staggering amount of time and money needed for reclamation.

For instance, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has instructed the operators of the Mt. Hope Project in Nevada to create a trust fund to provide a steady stream of reclamation funding for 500 years. Our entire nation’s history is only a little more than half that. But the half-life of some of the metals stored in mining waste piles stretches in to the billions of years. That’s what we mean by water treatment in perpetuity.

Introducing Good Sam legislation in Congress will not, unfortunately, solve the $32-$72 billion perpetual water pollution problem. For that, we need a dedicated source of funding for hardrock mines similar to the one we already have for coal. We also need to reform the 1872 Mining Law so that we value other uses of our public lands at least as much as mining. Until then, many thanks go out to Senator Udall and Representative Tipton for their demonstrated leadership tackling this critical fiscal and environmental challenge.