Cement Creek, which was flooded with millions of gallons of mining wastewater, is viewed on Aug. 11, 2015, in Silverton. The Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released approximately three million gallons of wastewater into the creek from the Gold King mine, polluting the larger Animas River downstream. (Theo Stroomer/Getty Images)
In the West and around the country, tens of thousands of abandoned mines — an estimated 23,000 in Colorado alone — dot the landscape, many of them fouling waterways and harming aquatic ecosystems.
Seven years ago in the mountains above Durango, workers for the Environmental Protection Agency dislodged rock while inspecting the Gold King Mine. Water that had built up in the mine suddenly gushed forth and 3 million gallons of liquid tainted with heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, flowed into Cement Creek, then the Animas, the San Juan and on to Lake Powell. As bad as it was, that spill represented just a trickle of the millions of gallons of tainted water that flow from abandoned mines — big and small — every year nationwide.
The Gold King helped shine a brief spotlight on a major issue.
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As imposing as they may seem, Colorado’s mountains are not rock solid. Beneath those peaks are thousands of miles of old mine tunnels, many of them discharging acidic, metal-laden water that kills insects and fish, taints drinking and agricultural water and damages waterways throughout the state. A 2017 study commissioned by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper estimated that more than 1,800 miles of streams in Colorado are polluted by that water — known as acid mine drainage.
But thanks to bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate, help could be on the way.
Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper are two of the 14 bipartisan cosponsors of S. 3571, the Good Samaritan Remediation of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act of 2022. Introduced by Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and James Risch (R-Idaho), the bill would establish a new pilot program administered by the EPA that would help spur abandoned mine cleanups.
It is estimated that it could cost at least $54 billion to clean up abandoned mines in the West. Currently those costs fall on underfunded government agencies, so there’s never enough money. While the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act established a new abandoned hardrock mine remediation program, that “fund” has yet to be funded. State agencies and non-governmental parties want to help fill this resource gap and add horsepower to federal cleanup efforts, but substantial legal liability obstacles severely limit the work these entities — called Good Samaritans — can do.
There are thousands of smaller, low-risk cleanups where Good Samaritans could substantially improve water quality.
At present, the only legal mechanism to address these leaking, abandoned mines is a federal Superfund cleanup, a program that is ironically also underfunded. Moreover, Superfund only addresses the worst cases and is not well-suited for the thousands of smaller discharges and waste rock piles impacting Western waterways.
Without a legal mechanism authorizing state agencies and private organizations to add to federal cleanup capacity and take on smaller remediation projects, these sites will bleed and bleed, decade after decade. Thus, incremental water quality improvements are hamstrung by provisions in the Clean Water Act and Superfund law that treat those who want to clean up abandoned mines as if they themselves are polluters.
That is why the Good Samaritan bill co-sponsored by Bennet and Hickenlooper is so important.
State agencies and non-governmental organizations, such as Trout Unlimited, that have no legal or financial responsibility or connection to a project — true Good Samaritans — want to help fill the gap between Superfund and the immense need to remediate abandoned mine sites. Complex projects like the Gold King would be off the table, but there are thousands of smaller, low-risk cleanups where Good Samaritans could substantially improve water quality.
By cleaning up sites that pose a low risk for accidents, cost-effective Good Samaritan cleanups would improve water quality. But, conservation organizations, state agencies, and watershed groups can’t help clean up draining abandoned mines unless Congress makes minor, targeted changes in law to provide Good Samaritans with conditional liability relief.
The Good Samaritan bill enables willing and well-qualified Good Samaritans to provide badly needed help.
It is time to empower volunteers who want to clean up abandoned mines — it’s time to solve a problem that has been more than a century in the making.
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