Peak & Prairie
December 1999 / January 2000
“Good Samaritan” Act Proposed to Facilitate Abandoned Mine Cleanup
by Don Anderson, Water Quality Committee
Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) recently introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that may make it more attractive for interested parties to get involved in the cleanup of abandoned mine sites by reducing their potential liability for mine-generated pollution.
This bill, dubbed the “Good Samaritan Abandoned or Inactive Mine Remediation Act,” was developed by the Western Governors Association in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and various interested parties. Currently, abandoned mines have an enormous impact on water quality across the United States, particularly in the mountain West. In Colorado, more than 800 miles of streams are severely degraded by high concentrations of dissolved metals carried in the runoff from thousands of such sites.
While the sources of the problem often are blatantly obvious, the means of addressing them often are not. Regulatory cleanup efforts can be stymied by the difficulty of identifying a “responsible party,” especially if the original miners are long gone or if dozens of parties have shared in the ownership and operation of the mine.
The intent of the “Good Samaritan” act is to protect a remediating agency (such as the EPA, a company, or a nonprofit organization) which does not otherwise have liability for an abandoned mine site from becoming legally responsible for that site should they attempt to clean up the pollution problem. Currently, the legal risks to such organizations are a huge disincentive. If Good Samaritan provisions were adopted, many agencies and communities would more aggressively address abandoned mine problems. That day may be drawing closer.
While a well-crafted Good Samaritan law could have tremendous environmental benefits, any such law must be forged with care. A poorly written law could, for example, make it easier for the parties actually responsible for the problem to escape from some or all cleanup responsibilities. Other provisions pushed by the mining industry, such as removing the disincentives for initiating “re-mining” at an abandoned mine site, could create loopholes that would undermine the value of the Act.
Citizens interested in tracking the progress of this bill are encouraged to contact Senator Baucus’ office at 202-224-2651, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or log on to his U.S. Senate Web Site (www.senate.gov/~baucus). The Sierra Club supports the concept of the Good Samaritan Act, provided that the Act’s provisions do not weaken existing laws holding responsible parties liable for their past actions at problem sites, and provided that clean-ups allowed by the Act actually result in an improvement in water quality.
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