New Rule May Help Clean Up Polluting Old Mines

January 23, 2013

A new federal policy should protect “good Samaritan” groups from liability if they try to stanch dangerous chemicals leaking from abandoned mining sites in the Colorado mountains and beyond, environmental officials say.

The Denver Post reported Sunday that the Environmental Protection Agency tweaked its policy after years of prodding by Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.

Udall visited the abandoned Iron Springs Mill site on Boreas Pass Friday and said the region’s water and air quality, its wildlife and its travel industry are at risk unless leaks are contained.

“We’re going to go to work. I predict we’re going to see projects all over this state, from the Red and Bonita Mine above Silverton to Willow Creek near Creede, to the Pennsylvania Mine, to the Tiger Mine near Leadville,” Udall said.

Leaks from an estimated 7,300 mines in Colorado have tainted 1,300 miles of streams. Across the West, more than 100,000 old mines are polluting the headwaters of 40 percent of rivers.

Community groups and the current owners of old mine sites haven’t embarked on cleanups previously because they feared legal liability for problems that others created.

In 2007, The EPA tried to partially shield good Samaritans, but the protection was insufficient to spur action.

The new policy says good Samaritans no longer need a federal permit to do cleanups and offers the groups an understanding with the EPA that they would not be liable under the Clean Water Act.

The change “is going to make a big difference in our ability to partner with a lot of you in doing this work,” EPA Regional Administrator Jim Martin told Summit County leaders Friday.

If outside groups cooperate with the EPA and local governments when they conduct mine cleanups, the EPA can protect them from liability under the Clean Water Act, Martin said.

He said the agency is looking for partners for some demonstration projects.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will work with state mining technician to fund mine cleanups, said Steve Gunderson, chief of the health department’s water quality division.

Funding may enable projects “to put blocks in mines, if the geology is right, so the water doesn’t flow out,” he said.

Trout Unlimited has added staff to help locate possible cleanup sites, said Elizabeth Russell, manager of the group’s mine cleanup work.

“We definitely have some reservations and questions, but we think this needs to be tried,” Russell said. “It could mean more fish. In some places, it will mean fish, period.”

Owners of mine sites still may be liable if cleanups are launched and something goes wrong.

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