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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Gardner, Tipton Introduce Bill To Set Up Abandoned Mine Cleanup Program

Luke Runyon
Drainage from an abandoned mine in Clear Creek County, Colo. stains a creek bed a sickly shade of orange.

This week two Republican members of Colorado’s congressional delegation -- Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton -- introduced a bill to create a pilot program for so-called “good Samaritans” who want to clean up the country’s abandoned mines.  

Called the Good Samaritan Remediation of Orphaned Hardrock Mines Act of 2018, the bill would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to set up a program that allows certain environmental and local watershed groups the ability to clean up Colorado’s 23,000 abandoned mines without bearing the legal risk that work entails.

The pilot program would also exempt these cleanup crews from having to clean heavy metal-laden wastewater to drinking water quality.

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC
Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner introduced a bill to establish a pilot program aimed at clean up of smaller abandoned mines throughout the country.

“Across Colorado and the West we have needed a permanent solution to the dangerous problem of abandoned mines,” Gardner wrote in a statement. “The opportunity to clean up the environment around these sites is crucial and this pilot program with finally allow for the long overdue process to begin.”

Some federal environmental laws have hampered smaller-scale mine cleanups, Gardner said.

One of the conservation groups willing to participate in the pilot program, Trout Unlimited, says some laws provide funding and resources to cleanups of large-scale mines. But the group’s president Chris Wood wrote that, “no-one bears the responsibility to clean up the more than 30,000 smaller abandoned mines that dot the western landscape like ticking time-bombs.”

The Walton Family Foundation provides funding for some of Trout Unlimited’s programming, and also provides funding for KUNC’s coverage of Western water issues.

Remediation work could take the form of human-made wetlands and passive treatment facilities, which only treat wastewater to a certain standard -- one that’s not likely to meet federal clean water rules associated with mine cleanups.

A version of a “good Samaritan” bill has been in discussion for two decades or more. Across the country, mostly concentrated in the West, an estimated 500,000 abandoned mines continue to drain acidic mine waste into streams and rivers.

The issue divides the environmental community, where some groups clamor for protections in doing restoration work, while others see any attempts to pass legislation as an attack on clean water rules and a dereliction of duty from mining companies and the federal government.

“This is a horrible bill hiding behind a nice name. Mining companies should clean up their own toxic messes, not leave the job to good Samaritans,” said Allison Melton, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Hard-rock mining pollution threatens drinking water and wildlife all over the country. Foisting this enormous, costly responsibility onto volunteers is not the answer,” Melton said.

A spokesperson for Gardner says the senator will be pushing to finish the legislation during the current lame duck session. If it’s not finished before the deadline, he’ll reintroduce it in the new Congress.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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