Restoration: The EPA relaxes Clean Water Act permitting liability for some ‘Good Samaritan’ mine cleanups

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Here’s the guidance document to EPA Regional Administrators from the Environmental Protection Agency:

From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):

The memo from EPA national headquarters to the agency’s regional offices extends the legal liability protections in cleanup agreements and specifies that Good Samaritans are generally not responsible for obtaining a Clean Water Act permit during or after a successful cleanup conducted according to a Good Samaritan agreement with EPA. Read the memo here.

The complex structure of the Clean Water Act has, in some cases, prevented community groups from proceeding with cleanups because of concerns over future liability for pollution.

Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, has been leading efforts to facilitate more protection for voluntary remediation efforts. He announced the new EPA guidance this week, saying that it required persistent communication with the agency, as well as direct appeals to the White House.

“This is a powerful statement coming from the EPA and I’m glad they decided to stand with me on this issue … True Good Samaritans can feel comfortable pursuing cleanups and partnerships with EPA knowing they won’t be responsible for pollution when they get done,” Udall said.

There are more than 7,000 abandoned mine sites in Colorado, many of them leaching toxic heavy metals into streams to the detriment of aquatic life. Udall said the new EPA guidance could ease cleanup projects at the Pennsylvania Mine site along Peru Creek, in Summit County, as well as at the Tiger Mine, along the Arkansas near Leadville, in the Animas River Basin near Silverton and along Willow Creek, near Creede.

“This new policy, which follows a multiyear effort I led, is welcome news for my constituents and Good Samaritans everywhere. Abandoned mines in Colorado and across the West threaten our waterways and the environment,” Udall said in a prepared statement.

“I am glad the EPA has partnered with me to develop this policy, which will free up Good Samaritans – like Trout Unlimited, the Animas River Stakeholders Group and the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee – to help protect our streams, waterways and drinking supplies. We still have work to do to address these abandoned mines, but this is a welcome step in the right direction that will unleash the power of local groups and volunteers.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday eased policy restrictions that had limited efforts by third parties to clean up abandoned hard rock mines. The move, which would enable third parties to partner with the agency for extended time periods and eliminate the need for a permit under the Clean Water Act during or after cleanup, may spur further reclamation here and at the nearly 7,000 abandoned mines in Colorado.

Good Samaritan groups, as many of the nonprofit and community­based cleanup organizations have been called, had feared tackling projects that directly involved a pollution source out of fear of being held liable for the site by the agency.

“The great thing here is that we’ve really superempowered these groups to go to work,” U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D­ Colo., said in a conference call with reporters.

The senator visited Creede in 2011 and met with the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee, which has been working for 13 years to clean up the historic mining district north of town. At the time, the group pointed to the Solomon Mine on East Willow Creek as a site where more work could be done if the threat of liability was erased. The group’s director could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The cleanup of the Tiger Mine near Leadville also was hampered by liability concerns. Elizabeth Russell, who heads mine cleanup efforts for Trout Unlimited in Colorado, said financial considerations might limit any immediate work on the project, but she said it was tailor­made for the new policy.

“The Tiger Mine is probably the best situation where this could probably work,” she said. Udall said he would monitor efforts under the new policy to see if a legislative fix was needed. But one effort he intends to push for is a bill that would allow federal funds for coal mine cleanup also to be directed toward hard­rock sites.

More water pollution coverage here.

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