November 6, 2015
Federal lawmakers have launched a series of initiatives to clean up mine pollution around the country, and they’re looking for guidance from one state with loads of experience cleaning up dirty mines—Pennsylvania.
House Republicans have introduced several bills to address mine pollution, including a federal version of the Good Samaritan law, a statute that Pennsylvania and a few other states have implemented to encourage clean-up of streams by volunteer groups. This week, they received testimony from a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) official about how the law has encouraged clean-ups in the Keystone State.
Eric Cavazza, director of the DEP’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation, told a House subcommittee that Good Samaritan projects have helped clean up areas where government dollars can’t. Pennsylvania’s yearly budget of $50 million in federal mine cleanup dollars is dwarfed by the $15 billion pricetag it would take to clean up the state’s 5,000-plus miles of minewater-contaminated streams.
“The universe of abandoned mine lands is so large, and the existing governmental resources is so limited, that without the assistance of Good Samaritan volunteers it will be next to impossible to clean up all of these lands,” Cavazza told the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
The Good Samaritan law protects volunteer groups—which can include watershed associations, local governments and companies—from some environmental lawsuits. Without the protection of the law, if a volunteer group cleans up a mine discharge, they could be held liable for the pollution that was in the water before they even touched it.
Pennsylvania has had a state Good Samaritan law since 1999. Since then, more than 50 Good Samaritan projects have been completed, Cavazza told the subcommittee.
“I have seen these projects go from where streams were completely dead to where they are now being stocked fisheries and being an asset to the community instead of an eyesore,” Cavazza said.
Federal attention turned toward the problem of abandoned mine pollution in the wake of a toxic wastewater spill at Colorado’s Gold King mine in August. An estimated three million gallons of mine water containing metals like copper, cadmium and zinc spilled into the Animas River. That spill occurred while the EPA was doing work on the mine.
The Gold King spill has brought new attention to the issue of pollution from legacy mines. Across the western U.S., tens of thousands of legacy mines are filled with toxic metals and acids that leak into rivers and streams. Advocates hope the Gold King spill will reignite interest in a federal Good Samaritan law as one fix for the problem.
Doug Young of the Colorado-based Keystone Policy Center says a federal law is needed because state Good Samaritan laws only shield volunteer groups from lawsuits brought under state statutes—not federal ones, like the Clean Water Act or the Superfund law.
Young said these landmark environmental laws are “doing what they're designed to do” but need to be updated. “It may just be the drafters didn't envision situations like what we're seeing now. We need an adjustment in statutes so that we can encourage more volunteers to do greater clean-ups.”
Federal Good Samaritan laws have foundered because of the complex politics of mining regulations and fears that the laws could take polluters off the hook, Young said.
In September, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California spoke against Good Samaritan legislation.
“Without adequate oversight of clean-ups, even well-intentioned efforts can have disastrous results and cost taxpayers even more money,” she told an oversight hearing.
But advocates hope the Gold King mine spill may have opened a window to get a Good Samaritan law passed.
“Unfortunately, when it comes [to] federal legislation, sometimes you need a crisis to get attention,” Young says.