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Waste spills out from an abandoned mine in Clear Creek County in August 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton on Thursday introduced the latest version of a so-called “good Samaritan” bill to address abandoned, leaking mines in the U.S. with hopes of breaking roughly two decades of congressional gridlock on the topic.

With just weeks left before the end of the year, the legislation offered by the two Republicans has a near-impossible path toward passage, but is meant to set the table for broader conversations in 2019.

The bill would let environmental and conservation groups prove the good Samaritan concept by working with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up 15 abandoned mines, most of which are leaking toxic waste.

The measure is called good Samaritan legislation because those good-will groups would be exempt from strict clean-water standards that typically come with addressing historic mining sites, Those rules currently keep do-gooder groups from completing remediation work.

“Across Colorado and the West we have needed a permanent solution to the dangerous problem of abandoned mines,” Gardner said in a written statement. “The opportunity to clean up the environment around these sites is crucial and this pilot program will finally allow for the long overdue process to begin.”

Gardner said he understands changes to the bill might be necessary and that he looks “forward to working with my colleagues and stakeholders to evaluate their feedback.”

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, during a tour of abandoned mining sites in Clear Creek County in August 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A sign of likely future holdup is lack of a Democratic sponsor on the legislation — namely Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who has also been pushing for a good Samaritan bill. Bennet and Gardner worked on a draft version of a similar bill in 2016.

“Abandoned mines across Colorado and the West need to be cleaned up,” Bennet told The Colorado Sun in a statement. “We are willing to work with anyone to pass good Samaritan legislation with appropriate environmental safeguards. We have a strong history of working together in our delegation and have made a lot of progress on a bipartisan and comprehensive solution to address this issue. We should restart the conversation in that spirit.”

Also, environmental groups are leery of this type of legislation because they worry it could create more pollution and would not do enough to solve the enormously complex issue of abandoned mines.

There are estimated to be hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines across the U.S., 23,000 of which are in Colorado alone.

“The American West is littered with approximately 500,000 abandoned mines that shackle taxpayers with an Environmental Protection Agency-estimated $50 billion in costs,” Lauren Pagel, policy director for the environmental group Earthworks, said in a statement Thursday. “Good Samaritans, no matter their intentions, lack the resources to dent a problem of this scale.  And this bill does nothing to address disasters like Gold King.”

The 2015 Gold King mine spill in southwest Colorado rekindled interest in good Samaritan legislation. However, Congress has been unable to reach an agreement on how to clean up abandoned mines without sacrificing environmental protections.

MORE: Three years after the Gold King Mine spill there’s no fix to leaky abandoned mines. What’s the holdup?

Groups like Earthworks want to see changes made to the nation’s 1872 Mining Law, specifically some kind of mechanism where current mining companies can pay into a fund dedicated toward abandoned mine cleanup.

Gardner and Tipton’s bill would bar any mining companies from working on sites they previously owned or operated. It would, however, allow those companies to clean up other abandoned mines.

The legislation bars so-called “re-mining” — or resuming mining activity at a site that’s being cleaned up — though it would allow groups to reprocess waste at a site to defray the cost of cleanup and help the EPA pay for overseeing the program.

Environmental groups also fear that good Samaritan legislation would allow companies to mine for profit without facing environmental regulations. The re-mining and cleanup-cost offset provisions in the new bill aim to address those anxieties.

“There are many Good Samaritan groups that have the technical expertise, financial ability and desire to conduct successful remediation at abandoned mines, but they are discouraged from taking on projects due to current regulations,” Tipton said in a statement.

Conservation group Trout Unlimited, which has been working with Gardner on the bill, has endorsed the legislation, as has the mining industry.

The bill’s formal name is the Good Samaritan Remediation of Orphaned Hardrock Mines Act of 2018.


Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...