Scuttled mine clean-up bill will rise again in Congress

LEADVILLE — A long overdue environmental clean-up bill that would see industrially contaminated water evacuated from the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel was voted down last week in Congress, scotched in part by Colorado Democrats in a first reading that suspended the U.S. House’s usual time-consuming rules of order.

Colo. U.S. Reps DeGette and Lamborn
Colo. U.S. Reps DeGette and Lamborn

The bill has been mostly noncontroversial on its face and is expected to pass once it returns to the House floor. But the schedule is controlled by House Democrats and exactly when the bill will return for a vote is yet to be determined.

The House bill, sponsored by Colorado Republican Doug Lamborn, would order the federal Bureau of Reclamation to take responsibility for the water trapped in the tunnel behind a blockage, but was rejected last week in what observers say was a case of political retaliation.

Earlier on the same day, Lamborn led Republicans in voting down another bill, HR 324. That bill, sponsored by Arizona Democrat Raúl Grijalva, would have established the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area in Arizona. Shortly thereafter, Democrats voted down Lamborn’s Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel bill, HR 3123.

“If you’re going to play games on something that is noncontroversial, and you make it controversial, then I don’t think we can idly stand by and not have a corresponding response,” Grijalva told the Energy and Environment Daily, a legislation trade publication.

Lamborn said that Grijalva’s proposed national heritage area has been the site of cross-border drug and human trafficking. But Grijalva’s bill, like Lamborn’s, was brought to the floor with the normal House rules suspended specifically because it was seen as noncontroversial.

Lamborn spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen said the congressman will submit a request to bring his Leadville bill back under suspension, but pointed out that Democrats have control of the calendar.

Grijalva is done with suspension. He told Environment and Energy Daily that he wants to bring both bills back up under regular order.

The two lawmakers from Colorado voted against the bill, Democrats Diana DeGette of Denver and Betsy Markey of Fort Collins, also believe the bill ought to return under regular order. Their offices pointed out that House and Senate versions of the bills differ and that those differences can best be resolved under regular order.

According to the offices of Lamborn and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall confirmed that the only difference between the bills is that the House bill removed a sentence referring to a 2003 Record of Decision that is expected to be revised this year. Lamborn simply did not want to reference the outdated document in the bill, Mortensen said.

Udall’s office confirmed that the senator had no issue with the change, and would likely amend his bill to match the House bill.

The bill could also return to the House if and when it is passed by the Senate.

Whatever way the bill returns, it is unlikely to return to committee. That’s good news for Leadville citizens, as it means the Bureau of Reclamation won’t be able to testify against the bill as it has in the past.

The federal agency, which owns the tunnel, agreed in 2008 to temporarily treat water pumped from behind the blockage on a temporary basis, after the issue received heavy media attention. But has resisted lawmakers’ attempts to force it to do any more to stabilize the tunnel — or to agree to treat the water in perpetuity.

The Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel bill comes as a late legislative mop-up in the matter, trailing already a year and a half after Lake County commissioners declared a state of emergency in the town in February 2008.

Local officials argued that the pool of contaminated water trapped by collapses in the tunnel was an immediate threat to the lives and well-being of Lake County residents.

The tunnel, built by the Bureau of Mines to drain Leadville’s mines for the war effort, was begun during World War II. In 1959, the Bureau of Reclamation purchased the tunnel as a water source. It later discovered that the water flowing from the tunnel was contaminated, and by 1992, it had built a plant to treat the water at the mouth of the tunnel. The collapses have prevented much of this mine drainage from reaching the plant.

In response to the Lake County commissioners’ 2008 emergency declaration, the Bureau of Reclamation agreed to treat water pumped from behind the blockage on a temporary basis — but argued that it did not have the authority to do so in perpetuity.

A 2008 bill to give the federal agency that responsibility — H.R. 5511, introduced by then-U.S. Rep. Mark Udall and Lamborn — passed in the House, but was never taken up by the Senate.

In July 2009, Udall, now a U.S. senator, and Lamborn introduced S.1417 and HR 3123 in a second attempt to assign responsibility to the Bureau of Reclamation. The Senate has not yet voted on Udall’s bill.

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