Good Samaritan legislation could help with acid mine drainage problem

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage via Animas River Stakeholders Group
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage via Animas River Stakeholders Group

From The Mountain Mail (Jason Willis):

You have probably heard of the Gold King Mine near Silverton and the spill of 3 million gallons of acidic, heavy-metal-laden mine wastewater into the Animas River that took place Aug. 5.

A lot of us here in Colorado are well aware of water quality issues resulting from historic hard rock mining operations. The mines and subsequent processing are what made this state, and particularly the mountainous mineral belt, flourish during the late 1800s through mid-1900s.

The events that took place after the Gold King incident made international news, while making the general public aware of how abandoned mines are a detriment to our water quality.

How much of a problem, you ask? According to a recent study completed by Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety (CDRMS), a total of 230 mines are discharging contaminated acid mine drainage (AMD) to our Colorado waterways. Of these, 47 are being addressed with active water treatment efforts, 35 mines are under investigation or being remediated, and 148 mines, well over half, are likely having a negative effect on water quality.

This number does not include abandoned mine waste or tailings piles that also pose a threat via surface water interaction and runoff.

My job got a little bit busier in the wake of this incident. Trout Unlimited has several staff members across the Western U.S., like myself, who work to remediate abandoned mine sites and improve associated water quality.

In 2015 my program alone has put almost $800,000 in private, grant and federal funds in the ground at abandoned mine sites.

These projects have included maintenance, mine tailings removal and revegetation, channel construction and slope stabilization. Most of these projects deal with non-point sources of pollution, which are not easily attributed to a single source.

For example, precipitation and runoff interacting with a mine tailings pile would be considered a non-point source of pollution. On the other hand, point sources are a single, identifiable source of pollution that must possess a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act (CWA). A draining mine discharging AMD would be an example of a point source.

There are several disincentives and liability concerns for nonprofits, watershed groups, local governments and environmental organizations (Good Samaritans) looking to attempt a discharge cleanup. Under the current legislative conditions, a Good Samaritan would assume permanent liability if they chose to install a treatment system at an abandoned mine.

Another roadblock often incurred in this process is the stringent EPA water quality standards applied to the discharge of a selected treatment system. Even if a Good Samaritan is removing 80-90 percent of the pollution from a given draining mine, but not attaining water quality standards, additional liability can be a deterrent for cleanup efforts.

Good Samaritan legislation would help create a mechanism for groups, like TU, to add capacity to perform point source cleanups at abandoned mine sites. A special “Good Sam” permit under the current CWA permit system would be a good first step, in addition to relaxed standards for water quality and required mitigation plan, engineering, sufficient funding and emergency response plan.

Several attempts at this legislation have been introduced in the last 15-20 years. Fear of creating a loophole for industry and amending the CWA were the unfavorable factors for previous bills.

Capitalizing on the increased publicity in the wake of the Gold King incident could help Good Samaritan legislation gain traction. Currently, Colorado Sens. Bennet and Gardner and Rep. Tipton are gathering input from key stakeholders to develop language for a Good Samaritan bill that can excel where past attempts have failed.

This change in legislation would open the door for more funding mechanisms and expertise to an industry already fighting an uphill battle. With an estimated 500,000 abandoned hard rock mines in the Western United States resulting in contamination of 40 percent of Western headwater streams, now is the time for increased awareness and applicable legislation to help improve our water quality for future generations.

For information on how you can help take action to keep our water clean, visit http://sanjuancleanwater.org.

For more information about Collegiate Peaks Chapter and our events visit our website: http://collegiatepeaksanglersTU.org

2 thoughts on “Good Samaritan legislation could help with acid mine drainage problem

  1. John. I so appreciate the piece and was happy to share it. Many of those I communicate with via Linkedin, however, may misinterpret the acid “mind” bit, particularly those who have poor opinions of the drug culture in Colorado; not much of a sense of humor, I fear. I am hoping they read beyond the headline, since it is an important perspective.

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