Uncompahgre River Watershed: ‘Good Samaritan’ clean up of Red Mountain Creek in the offing?


From The Telluride Watch (Samantha Wright):

The Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, a grassroots coalition of citizens, nonprofits, local and regional governments, and federal and state agencies dedicated to understanding the Uncompahgre Watershed, would like to do something about this caustic problem child. Red Mountain Creek is, after all, a tributary of the Uncompahgre River, and one of the main reasons why the southernmost portion of the river is deemed “impaired” – or, as some would say, dead, because it cannot support aquatic life.

The coalition has recently identified its top priority as improving water quality so as to remove impaired segments of the Uncompahgre River from the State of Colorado’s list of impaired streams.

Thus, Przeszlowska is watching with interest current efforts headed up by U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) to find a way to allow so-called Good Samaritans (ranging from individuals to citizen groups like UWP to governmental and nongovernmental agencies) to take on projects to improve water quality in areas where there are abandoned mines, without fear of incurring liability under the Clean Water Act.

Reclamation experts have found plenty of ways to shore up leaky old mines and reduce acid mine drainage flowing into impaired watersheds. These range from simple fixes, like reducing the amount of water entering into the mine by building plugs or diverting the water around old workings, to treating drainage with settling ponds, wetlands, limestone drains, or some other form of passive or active treatment.

But certain provisions in the federal Clean Water Act create major stumbling blocks to such efforts. The Clean Water Act likes big, perfect fixes – like permanent water treatment pants that cost millions to build and millions more annually to operate, and which convert toxic water into potable stuff that fish can cruise around in.

So-called Good Samaritans have had to walk away from more modest mine cleanup projects for fear that if they don’t bring the discharge water all the way up to CWA standards, they may be sued by a third-party citizen or even another environmental group.

Pat Willits, the executive director of the Ridgway-based Trust for Land Restoration, which helps communities deal with a myriad of issues related to abandoned mining, explains the liability problem like this: “Good Samaritans are spooked by the ‘citizen suit’ provision of the Clean Water Act, which says that if someone suspects a violation of the Clean Water Act, a citizen may begin a legal action and if successful, the defending party will have to pay all of the legal expenses of the citizen’s group. If they are unsuccessful, the defendant does not have recourse to countersue.”[…]

Two decades’ worth of efforts to shield would-be Good Samaritans legislatively by creating a new provision in the Clean Water Act (including, most recently, U.S. Senator Mark Udall’s Good Samaritan Cleanup of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act of 2009), have floundered in Congress, due to fears from environmentalists about opening up the Clean Water Act, even for such benign and altruistic purposes as protecting Good Samaritans…

Fed up with past efforts, Udall is now taking a new approach. He believes that updating, or even simply clarifying, Environmental Protection Agency policy may accomplish pretty much the same thing as legislation in terms of affording legal protection to Good Samaritans.

The agency already has some existing guidance that encourages potential Good Samaritans to enter into voluntary agreements with EPA or federal land management agencies that helps to facilitate certain kinds of Good Samaritan cleanups.

As they stand, these protections are considered good enough protection for Good Samaritans to undertake reclamation projects that do not include direct attempts to improve water quality beyond, for example, rerouting a stream so it does not flow through a mining waste dump, or preventing water from flowing into old mine workings.

More water pollution coverage here.

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


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.

Restoration: Hope Mine biochar application has yielded surprising results


From the Colorado Independent (Troy Hooper):

What was once a wasteland of arsenic, cadmium, lead and zinc on a steep mountainside that abuts Castle Creek is now a haven for natural grasses and wildflowers that have stabilized the slope and drastically reduced the risk of the heavy metals crashing into the city’s main water supply.

The striking change of scenery around Hope Mine is the result of the first whole-scale reclamation project ever attempted in the United States, and possibly the world, using biochar — a type of charcoal produced through the thermal treatment of organic material in an oxygen-limited environment.

how aggressive the regrowth was,” said John Bennett, executive director of For The Forest, which teamed up with Carbondale-based Flux Farm Foundation at the request of the U.S. Forest Service, which is exploring new ways to partner with private groups to reclaim landscapes. “We did not expect waist-high grass in the very first summer. We thought it would take longer.”

Not only is biochar restoring the ecology and containing the mine tailings that fan down toward Castle Creek but experts say it is also immobilizing the heavy metals long enough so that they naturally degrade and it is sequestering carbon that would otherwise escape into the earth’s atmosphere.

Click through for the rest of the article and the cool before and after photos.

More coverage from Chadwick Bowman writing for The Aspen Times. From the article:

“This project is going better than I would have dared hoped,” John Bennett, executive director of For the Forest, an Aspen-based nonprofit focused on forest health, said Thursday during a press conference at the site.

The reclamation of the slope, south of Aspen in the Castle Creek Valley, became more pressing when it was discovered that very low levels if toxic metals had been sliding into the creek, a source of Aspen’s drinking water.

Even though the levels of toxins were minute, the reclamation plan was intended to prevent a potential landslide on a mine tailings pile — debris left from mineral extraction — that could add poisons into the creek.

“The Forest Service turned us on to the project because it’s their land,” said Kate Holstein, program director of For the Forest. “They told us there is a situation where this big slope is continually eroding into Castle Creek. … If a large erosion were to occur where the whole slope slid into the creek, it could be catastrophic.”

Holstein said such a landslide could shut down the Castle Creek water source potentially for years…

Forty-two test plots were laid out at the site; each contains different variations of biochar mixed with soil and seeds, as well as control plots that contain no biochar. Williams said there are significant differences between the plots, and that biochar is making growth happen.

More restoration coverage here.

Congressional mining reform legislation update

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From the Associated Press via the San Jose Mercury News:

Among proposals to reform the 1872 Mining Law are plans to implement royalties on mining profits for the first time and reclamation fees for cleaning up abandoned mines. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had testified to a Senate committee in July 2009 that he wanted reform that protects mining, protects the environment and provides for the cleanup of such mines. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the New Mexico Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is shepherding the broadest plan, which calls for an adjusted 2 percent to 5 percent royalty after transportation and processing costs are taken out. It also gives the Interior Department more discretion on environmental matters and calls for the money raised under the bill to be used for reclaiming abandoned mine lands. The proposal has the support of a number of conservation groups, including the Washington D.C.-based Earthworks. Cathy Carlson, an adviser to Earthworks, said Bingaman told conservationists who recently met with him that he hoped to move the bill out of committee in April…

Republican Reps. Doug Lamborn, of Colorado, and Rob Bishop, of Utah, have introduced a good Samaritan bill that allows mining companies and nonprofit organizations to clean up old mines without liability for old environmental damage. Bills introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., also focus on abandoned mine provisions. Carlson said Udall’s bill, which reduces cleanup liability under the Clean Water Act, has “broad support.”[…]

Lamborn and Bishop’s proposal calls for a 2 percent net proceeds royalty on new mines on public land, an approach that leaders of the National Mining Association believe is a better fit with mining industry interests. Eklund-Brown said she emphasized in NBC interview yet to air that any royalty must be industry-specific and not compared with those paid by industries such as oil and gas.

More General Mining Act of 1872 coverage here, S.1777 coverage here, S.787 coverage here and S.796 coverage here.

S. 1777: Good Samaritan Cleanup of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act of 2009

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This video about Good Samaritan cleanups has been making the rounds in the blogosphere. Click through and watch it. It takes about 6 minutes.

More S. 1777 coverage here.

ASARCO parent Grupo Mexico ponies up $1.79 billion for mining cleanup

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From the Environmental News Service:

ASARCO LLC is a mining, smelting, and refining company based in Tucson, Arizona that mines and processes primarily copper. Parent corporation Grupo Mexico is providing the $1.79 billion to resolve the ASARCO’s environmental liabilities from operations that contaminated land, water and wildlife resources on federal, state, tribal and private land in 19 states. “Through this historic settlement, the American public is compensated for the damage and loss of natural resources resulting from ASARCO’s past mining, smelting and refining operations,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “Were it not for this agreement, these injured resources would either remain impaired for future generations or require taxpayer expenditures to achieve environmental restoration.” The money from environmental settlements in the bankruptcy will be used to pay for past and future costs incurred by federal and state agencies at the more than 80 sites contaminated by mining operations in 19 states, said federal officials…

The contaminated Superfund sites are in Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Washington.

More superfund coverage here.

Uncompahgre River: ‘Examining Abandoned Mine Lands in the Uncompahgre Watershed’ December 11

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From The Telluride Watch (Gus Jarvis):

The Uncompahgre Watershed Planning Partnership will be hosting a daylong workshop titled “Examining Abandoned Mine Lands in the Uncompahgre Watershed” on Friday, Dec. 11 from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Ouray Community Center. Various representatives from state and local organizations will be attending the workshop, which will focus on reclamation activities and abandoned mine lands in the upper Uncompahgre watershed. The workshop’s organizer, Andrew Madison, who is an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer working in Ridgway to develop a mine reclamation strategy for abandoned mine lands in the watershed, said that while there has already been a lot of mine reclamation work completed in the area, the work has just begun…

The Uncompahgre Watershed Planning Partnership is a volunteer group seeking to involve citizens and organizations in the Uncompahgre watershed. Its mission is to protect and restore water quality in the Uncompahgre River through coordinated community and agency efforts. “I am really looking forward to the workshop,” Madison said. “I have had a great response so far and I am looking forward to getting people to talk to each other on these issues.” For more information about “Examining Abandoned Mine Lands in the Uncompahgre Watershed” contact Madison at 413/297-7232 or at ridgway.vista@gmail.com.

More Uncompahgre River watershed coverage here and here.