Across the western United States, abandoned mines, including about 23,000 in Colorado, are releasing toxic pollutants into the environment every day, altering water quality, dirtying fish habitat and compromising the environment. public health. Conservation groups, mining companies and other private parties would voluntarily clean up many of these mines, but federal policy makes this excessively risky and costly. A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate last week would, if passed, address these barriers and free up good Samaritans to restore the environment.
Nationwide, there are approximately 140,000 abandoned mines on federal, state, and private land. Their impact on the environment is significant. A total of 40% of the western headwaters are impaired by heavy metals and other toxins slowly released by these mines. Pollution from abandoned mines is, according to Chris Wood, president of Trout Unlimited, “the most significant and under-addressed environmental problem in the western United States.”
Many of these mines date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. The individual or corporate owners are unknown, deceased or have long been bankrupt, making it impossible to entrust them with the responsibility of cleaning up these mines. So these mines just sit, slowly leaking pollution decade after decade.
Conservation groups, water utilities, mining companies and other private parties are encouraged to tackle this issue and have expressed a strong interest in participating. For conservation groups like Trout Unlimited, cleaning up an abandoned mine can be key to restoring fish habitat and increasing fish populations. . For a water utility, addressing the source of pollution can be easier and less expensive than having to treat the water for toxins downstream. And for mining companies, processing material removed from abandoned mines is an opportunity to recover valuable minerals today that were discarded in the past.
In Montana’s Nine Mile Valley, Trout Unlimited has restored two miles of creek degraded by dredge mining. The project restored native trout habitat, increased water supply, and made the watershed more resilient to flooding and drought. In Colorado, the group and its partners are improving the Clear Creek watershed by removing mine waste and other materials outside of abandoned mines. They have also remedied the effects of past pollution, in particular by restoring and revegetating the banks.
While projects like these have made important contributions to environmental health, they are significantly hampered by federal laws that limit these good Samaritans from nibbling on the edges of the problem. The biggest source of pollution at most sites, the mine itself, is often effectively prohibited.
More ambitious cleanups are often covered by the Clean Water Act. Paradoxically, a law to clean up the nation’s waters frustrates that goal in the context of the abandoned mine by threatening any potential Good Samaritan with unlimited liability for pre-existing pollution at a site. — even if their only implication is to reduce this pollution. With perpetual fines increasing by the day, this “if you touch it, you own it” policy is a no-start for any group considering a voluntary cleanup. According to a judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the message this law sends to good Samaritans is clear: “Do nothing! Let the water deteriorate, let the fish die, but protect your wallet from huge and unnecessary expenses.
Congress has an opportunity to right that wrong. The bipartisan Good Samaritan Remediation of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act, introduced by Senators Heinrich (D-New Mexico) and Risch (R-Idaho) and co-sponsored by Democratic Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, would authorize a pilot project of 15 Good Samaritan projects to clean up abandoned sites. mines free of these obstacles. Good Samaritans should submit a restoration plan to the Environmental Protection Agency for review and demonstrate their ability to carry it out. As long as the Good Samaritan respects the permit, he can only be held liable if his own actions make the pollution problem worse.
Incentives matter. Making people responsible for the negative consequences of their own actions encourages responsible behavior. But punishing people with unlimited liability for doing good serves no purpose, except to delay urgent and necessary action to improve the environment. It’s time to finally release the good Samaritans to begin tackling the problem of abandoned mines in Colorado and across the country.
Jonathan Wood is Vice President of Law and Policy for the Property and Environmental Research Center and author of “Prospecting for Pollution,” a comprehensive report highlighting the need for Good Samaritan reform.