Sen. Udall sponsors plan to clean up old mines
October 14, 2009
DENVER – U.S. Sen. Mark Udall said Wednesday he’s sponsoring a bill to make it easier for conservation groups, states and others to clean up old abandoned mines by making sure they’re not held legally responsible for problems they didn’t cause.
The Colorado Democrat said that hard-rock mining has played a key role in the West and its economy.
“But unfortunately, at the same time, we have a legacy of abandoned mines,” Udall said.
Seeping pollution from old mines have tainted waterways, killed fish and posed dangers to communities that have grown closer to some of the sites. Federal officials have estimated there are thousands of abandoned mines across the West and thousands of miles of waterways and numerous lakes and reservoirs endangered by contaminated mine drainage.
Nonprofit groups and others willing to clean up old gold and silver mines, some abandoned for more than a century, could face the same kinds of legal responsibility as the original operators.
“Many of the current environmental laws, as well intentioned as they are, don’t help us clean up already abandoned mines,” Udall said.
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He has introduced a revised version of previous proposals aimed at protecting good Samaritans from liability. Udall said his new bill differs from previous measures because it only addresses liability under the federal Clean Water Act.
Past proposals would have limited legal exposure to additional environmental laws. Udall said administrative waivers can be approved for most of the laws, but legislation is needed to address the Clean Water Act.
People with permits and who follow plans approved by public or tribal agencies would be protected from full exposure of the federal law. Udall, who sponsored previous measures, said the new bill was written after consulting with environmentalists, state and federal officials.
The new plan has won the backing of two environmental groups: Trout Unlimited and Earthworks. Chris Wood, Trout Unlimited’s chief operating officer, said in a prepared statement that cleaning up abandoned mines “is one of the single most important, least addressed environmental challenges in the nation.”
Wood said Trout Unlimited is cleaning up fisheries and water affected by abandoned mines in Utah, Idaho, Montana, Colorado and Nevada.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has had to negotiate deals and issue administrative orders to protect the conservation group from lawsuits.