Abandoned Mines in the United States and Opportunities for Good Samaritan Cleanups
2167 Rayburn House Office Building
Chairman Bob Gibbs (R-OH)
Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment
Hearing on “Abandoned Mines in the United States and Opportunities for Good Samaritan Cleanups”
October 21, 2015
(Remarks as Prepared)
I would like to welcome everyone to our hearing today on abandoned mines and the opportunities for Good Samaritan cleanups.
Past mining activities, far removed from the sophisticated mining practices we see today, disturbed hundreds of thousands of acres of land, altered drainage patterns, and generated substantial amounts of waste scattered around the Nation. Today, it is estimated there may be as many as 500,000 of these old mine sites in the United States. Many of these mines were abandoned by the owners or operators a long time ago, once the remaining minerals became too difficult or costly to extract.
Although operated consistent with the laws at the time, many, though not all, of these abandoned mines now pose environmental and health threats to surrounding surface and ground waters, nearby lands, and downstream communities. It is estimated that tens of thousands of miles of streams across the nation are polluted by acid mine drainage and toxic loadings of heavy metals leaching from many of these old mines, impacting fisheries and water supplies.
State and federal agencies have worked to remedy these problems, as have local governments and non-governmental organizations, but the number of sites and the expense involved has made progress very slow. Some of these old mine lands lack a viable owner or operator with the resources to remediate them. Many others are truly abandoned, with no identifiable owner or operator to hold responsible. As a result, few of these old mine sites are getting cleaned up.
Public or private volunteers, or Good Samaritans, are willing to carry out a partial or complete remediation at some of these sites.
These Good Samaritans may be driven by a desire to improve the environment. Others may want to improve water quality at their water supply source. Still others may want to clean up an old mine site for the purpose of re-mining the area.
However, most Good Samaritans have been deterred from carrying out these projects by the risk of becoming liable for complete cleanup required by various environmental laws. This is because current federal law does not allow for partial cleanups. For example, if a Good Samaritan steps in to partially clean up an abandoned mine site, that party could become liable under the Clean Water Act or Superfund for a greater level of cleanup and higher costs than the party initially volunteered for.
In the end, most potential Good Samaritans refrain from attempting to address a site’s pollution problems at all because they could face the legal consequences if they fall short of complete cleanup.
While Superfund and the Clean Water Act have been successful in reducing pollution from commercial and industrial locations, these laws have also had the unforeseen consequence of deterring cleanup at abandoned mines. In other words, laws that were designed to protect the environment may now be inadvertently harming or discouraging the cleanup of the environment. Our laws should encourage, rather than discourage, parties to volunteer themselves to clean up abandoned mine sites.
We should consider whether, in some circumstances, environmental standards should be made more flexible in order to achieve at least partial cleanup of sites that otherwise would remain polluted. This is not about letting polluters off the hook. Those who pollute will remain legally responsible for the pollution they caused.
I believe there is little disagreement that encouraging volunteers to clean up abandoned mine sites is a worthwhile policy, since some improvement is better than no improvement. However, in exploring the details of such a policy, a number of issues arise, such as who should be eligible, how should new standards be applied, and how should potential re-mining of these sites be addressed?
To help us identify and address these and other issues, we have a panel of witnesses who have been actively involved in the debate over how to address the abandoned mines problem in this country. I hope our witnesses will bring forward ideas on how we can remove impediments to abandoned mine cleanups and get more Good Samaritans to step forward.
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