Earlier last month in February, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced the Good Samaritan Remediation of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act, which has significant implications for clean watersheds throughout the country. Mining law in the United States is a complicated and rather outdated collection of laws. This piece of legislation provides a crucial liability carveout for well-intentioned entities to clean up the tens of thousands of abandoned hardrock mines in the United States.

Hardrock mining pollution is a serious problem in our country from coast to coast due to a long history of harmful mining activities with weak laws. “The EPA estimates that 40 percent of western headwater streams are polluted by drainage from abandoned hardrock mines. These are not large-scale Superfund sites,” Chris Wood writes in a recent TU blog.

Senators Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Jim Risch (R-ID) introduced the bill, S. 3571, to address these sources of legacy pollution and leverage public and private partnerships eager to do the restoration work. Without this legislation, the ‘good samaritans,” groups like Trout Unlimited and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, state agencies, or even local governments could be on the hook for all of the existing pollutants, and possible future impacts, from a mine the second that entity takes responsibility. So, an organization that is volunteering to clean up watersheds and reclaim abandoned mine could become liable for millions of dollars in damages in the event of an accident or unforeseen outcome.

Additionally, Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO), Steve Daines (R-MT), Jon Tester (D-MT), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), and John Barrasso (R-WY) were original cosponsors on the Good Samaritan Remediation of abandoned Hardrock Mines Act. The bill now has 13 sponsors–more than previous Good Samaritan pieces of legislation.

“Abandoned mines across the West are leaking toxic metals that threaten our land, water, fish and wildlife—and the communities that depend on them,” said Senator Heinrich. “I’m proud to introduce this bipartisan legislation with Senator Risch to create a path for Good Samaritan groups to clean up these sites and create good-paying jobs in New Mexico and across the country.”

Senator Risch added, “There’s real motivation among the mining industry and conservation community to remedy the environmental challenges created by long-abandoned mines. Unfortunately, meaningful action has been heavily discouraged due to the significant liability risk.”

Should this bill become law, volunteering reclamation entities would be able to further leverage the increased investment in the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund program through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Package.

The Good Samaritan Remediation and Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act would be immediately positive in many western communities. “The legislation introduced today would not only secure the future of critical Western water resources,” Backcountry Hunters and Anglers President and CEO Land Tawney said. “It also would improve habitat for fish and wildlife – all while generating new jobs and establishing a new benchmark for the stewardship of our public lands and waters.” In addition to addressing the Good Samaritan liability issue, this legislation would authorize and fund 15 pilot projects for Good Samaritan remediation projects at abandoned hardrock mines that meet certain criteria.

23 JUL 2015: Acid mine drainage from abandoned mines is contaminating our clean water in the San Juan Mountains.

“Passage of the Good Samaritan legislation will allow us and our partners to address mines that leak orange water,” writes Chris Wood, “and it will help us expand our abandoned mine clean-up work onto private lands that are important for trout and salmon, provide people with drinking water supplies, and offer places where kids can ride their bikes without fear of getting sick.”

If you want to learn more about the bill and how to encourage lawmakers to support the legislation, check out this TU action page.

Photos by Josh Duplechian.

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