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Should industry be in charge of Gold King Mine clean up?
August 31, 2015

In the wake of the spill of millions of gallons of tainted water from the Gold King Mine in Colorado a number of questions have surfaced, among them — who should be doing the clean up for the spill.

In an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 21, author Rhett Larson asks why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which caused the breach in the first place, was managing the clean up as opposed to the mining industry. Larson suggests the mining industry is much better equipped in terms of tools and experience to clean up such a site and should be doing the work.

However, as was noted by The Denver Post, also on Aug. 21, it is not so easy for companies to jump in to help, even when the company does so with the best intentions. The Denver Post reported that Congress twice failed to pass legislation that would have created a pilot program in the Animas River watershed that would have allowed so-called good Samaritan groups to clean up polluted mines without fear of long-term liability. Such a program might have prevented the accident, and possibly more from occurring in the future.

The legislation would essentially shield third-parties engaged in clean up efforts from liability for future damages. As the law stands now, a third-party could be held liable for future pollution once it began to clean up a mine — an enormous financial risk.

In his opinion piece, Rhett writes, “The abandoned Gold King Mine at the center of the EPA’s recent debacle is not unique. There are more than 557,000 abandoned hard rock mines in 32 states throughout the country. These sites often have been inactive for decades, and the responsible party either no longer exists or cannot be found. Abandoned mines can have devastating effects on the environment, and mismanaging them can lead to catastrophic spills like the one in the Animas River.

“Mining companies — such as Freeport McMoRan, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto Group — are far better equipped than the EPA to deal with abandoned mines. These companies have access to the best technologies, employ the best and most experienced experts, and can often improve the environment while making these sites economically productive again,” Rhett wrote.

For example, Rhett looks a 2007 a deal with the EPA related to a new mining operation outside Globe, Ariz., Carlota Copper Co. cleaned up pollution from nearby Gibson Mine, which had been abandoned for more than a century.

Gibson Mine became part of a productive facility again, with state-of-the-art environmental protection measures. The cleanup resulted in improved water quality in Pinto Creek, which had suffered decades of pollution from the abandoned mine.

Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, told The Denver Post that it is self-defeating to deny the mining industry a chance to take part in cleanup.

"If the events of the past few weeks have proven anything, it is (that) limiting participation to the EPA and government is not sufficient, nor does it always achieve the right results, as we have seen in dramatic fashion," he said.

He also said it made sense that modern mining companies be allowed to excavate cleanup areas. Otherwise what financial incentive did they have in fixing sites in which they had no responsibility?

"If there are any mineable reserves, why not take those resources?" he asked.


 

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