Udall's Bill Protects Samaritans' Liability under CWA

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall has introduced a bill to help "Good Samaritans" who want to clean up abandoned mines but can't without taking on liability under the Clean Water Act.

Abandoned mines are a serious environmental and safety hazard throughout Colorado and the West. Udall's bill would open up a path for community groups and others to get these mines cleaned up by establishing a permit program that would enable volunteers to reduce the pollution flowing from an abandoned mine without being exposed to full liability under the Clean Water Act.

Udall's legislation would address liability issues only under the Clean Water Act, rather than addressing those issues under several environmental laws. The reason is that there are administrative avenues and options available to Good Samaritans to address compliance with other laws. But addressing these liability issues under the Clean Water Act requires an act of Congress.

"This is an elegant and common sense solution to one of the biggest obstacles Good Samaritans face when they want to get these abandoned mines cleaned up," Udall said. "Abandoned mines are a menace to the environment and public health and to the communities that rely on water flowing downstream. There are several groups in Colorado who care about their communities and want to protect them and who are ready to go as soon as we have legislation to help them get started. I'm dying to turn them loose so they can get to work."

Specifically, the legislation would cover hardrock mines (not coal) and associated facilities that are no longer actively mined and not on the national priority list (NPL) under Superfund. It would:

  • Set up a new program enabling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or a state or tribal government with an approved Clean Water Act permitting program to issue clean-up permits to a person or entity not involved in creating the polluting mine.
  • Require an applicant to submit a detailed plan for remediation of the site. After an opportunity for public comments, the EPA or other permitting authority could issue a permit if it determined that implementing the plan would not worsen water quality and could result in improving it toward meeting applicable water quality standards.
  • Enable a permit holder to clean up the mine only as specified in the remediation plan. When finished, the permit would expire, ending the Good Samaritan's responsibility for the project.
  • Require EPA to report on the bill to Congress in nine years, enabling Congress to consider whether to renew or modify the legislation.

"The problems caused by abandoned and inactive mines are very real and very large. They include acidic water draining from old tunnels; heavy metals leaching into streams, killing fish and tainting water supplies; open vertical mine shafts; dangerous highwalls; large open pits; waste rock piles that are unsightly and dangerous; and hazardous dilapidated structures," Udall said.

"And, unfortunately, many of our current environmental laws, designed to mitigate the impact from operating hardrock mines, are of limited effectiveness when applied to abandoned and inactive mines. As a result, many of these old mines go on polluting streams and rivers and potentially risking the health of people who live nearby or downstream, " he added.

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