Should there be a Clean Water Act exemption for ‘Good Samaritan’ efforts at cleaning up abandoned mines?

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The idea is catching on in some circles. Here’s a report from Gus Jarvis writing for The Telluride Watch. From the article:

After nearly 20 years of inaction, the creation of a Good Samaritan policy with regard to the cleanup of abandoned mine drainage flows has gained broad support across the West. There is now hope that it might gain traction with federal legislators and policy makers in Washington, D.C…

According to Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett, the liability issue for Good Samaritans working on draining mines goes all the way back to 1994, when the EPA determined that draining mines are point source discharges and require National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits.

All too often, no viable financially responsible party exists for the abandoned mines. While the water quality in the vicinity of the mine continues to be impaired, no one can be held responsible for cleaning it up. Good Samaritans, be it state or federal agencies, watershed groups, environmental groups, or mining companies, often have programs in place to implement a mine cleanup but the liability issue prevents them from going forward with the cleanup.

“This is something people have been asking for 20 some years,” Padgett said in an interview on Tuesday. “There are some examples in Colorado of filtration systems that have been built but not turned on because of the liability piece. I think there has to be a common sense answer here.”

U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) have addressed the issue with the EPA, asking it to use its authority to create a Good Samaritan policy that would allow them to improve water quality without fear of liability or citizen lawsuits under the Clean Water Act. Udall has been in favor of a Good Samaritan policy during his tenure in the Senate and has continued to push the idea. In 2009, Udall introduced the Good Samaritan Cleanup of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act, which has not yet passed. Last month, after writing a letter to the EPA, Udall again took the issue to the Senate floor to gain support from his colleagues.

“Good Samaritans are too valuable of a resource to keep on the sidelines,” Udall said on Feb. 14. “Congress should do what is necessary to bring their efforts to bear on the cleanup of abandoned mine pollution…Good Samaritans can’t solve all of our abandoned mine pollution problems, but we can’t afford to turn away those willing to help any longer.”

More water pollution coverage here. More Good Samaritan coverage here and here.

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