Good Samaritan laws could have prevented mine water spill

August 21, 2015

The massive mine water spill from the Gold King in Colorado could have been avoided if Good Samaritan laws had been passed, according to a report in The Denver Post.

Legislation designed to create a pilot program that would have allowed Good Samaritan groups to clean up polluted mines in the Las Animas region without fear of long-term liability were proposed by U.S. Reps. Scott McInnis and John Salazar in 2003 and 2006, however, neither passed because of political squabbling between environmental groups and the mining industry.

Had that program been in place, it may not have prevented the disaster inadvertently triggered by the Environmental Protection Agency. The spill released more than 3 million gallons of toxic waste into the river, which runs through the heart of Durango, and polluted waters downstream in New Mexico and Utah, The Denver Post reported.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton are working to introudce the laws again.

The basic premise of the Good Samaritan law is simple, it would shield outside groups from liability when cleaning up a mine, however, the problem is that of liability. Across Colorado and the West, there are thousands of abandoned mines in which no one is responsible for the cleanup; either the company went out of business or the culprit can't be found.

In those cases, organizations such as Trout Unlimited, a conservation group, have suggested third-party groups be allowed to help fix the mines. But these advocates are worried a cleanup campaign would force them to put too much on the line.

Under current environmental law, a third-party group could be held liable for future pollution once it began to clean up a mine.

And so he and others have asked lawmakers such as Udall to write legislation that would shield them from this liability.

But some environmentalists have warned that the issue isn't that simple.

They view Good Samaritan bills as either a wasted effort or a Trojan Horse that would pave the way for more mining and they want legislation that would force hard-rock mining companies to pay into a fund that would cover the cost of these reclamation efforts.

Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, said it was self-defeating to deny the mining industry a chance to take part in cleanup.

Not only is recovery work expensive, but the effort could benefit from the knowledge and equipment that miners could provide — especially when set against the recent spill at the Gold King Mine.

"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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