Udall introduces new ‘Good Samaritan’ water clean-up legislation

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall announced Wednesday that he introduced “Good Samaritan” legislation that would provide legal protection for non-profit and other groups who would cleanup water contamination issuing from abandoned mines across Colorado.

Sen. Mark Udall
Sen. Mark Udall

“In Colorado, as our cities and towns have expanded close to these mines, we see more issues for public health and safety,” said Udall, a Democrat from Eldorado Springs. “The problems are very real and very large.”

Udall’s legislation would mainly seek to address water concerns, including acidic water drainage and heavy metal leaching, which kills fish and taints water supplies.

This will be the 11th piece of Good Samaritan legislation introduced in Congress in the last 15 years. Despite the support of many of those living near the mines, cleanup groups, as well as the Western Governors’ Association, all previous bills have been defeated.

The most vocal opponents of the legislation have often been major environmental groups, who worry that such bills weaken environmental legislation.

An ‘elegant solution’

But Udall said this time is different. He has worked to narrow the bill to address only the problematic Clean Water Act liability in the hopes that the bill will earn broader support.

The Good Samaritan Cleanup of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act of 2009 would introduce a “Good Samaritan permit” for those cleaning up abandoned mines they had no part in creating. The Good Samaritan permit would protect such groups from Clean Water Act liability.

“This is an elegant and common sense solution to one of the biggest obstacles Good Samaritans face when they want to get these abandoned mines cleaned up,” Udall said. “There are several groups in Colorado who care about their communities and want to protect them and who are ready to go as soon as we have legislation to help them get started. I’m dying to turn them loose so they can get to work.”

To apply for the permit, applicants would submit a clean-up plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If their application is approved, Good Samaritans could then clean up waterways without incurring liability under the Clean Water Act.

Currently, according to a precedent set by the 1994 case Committee to Save the Mokelumne River v. East Bay Municipal Utility District, anyone who attempts to clean waterways open themselves up to lawsuits, even if they did not create the pollution in the first place and do not own the property.

“Anytime you get your hands wet, you’ve triggered the Clean Water Act and Clean Water Act liability,” explained Udall.

Past complications, new support

Previous iterations of Good Samaritan legislation have exempted Good Samaritans from compliance not only with the Clean Water Act but also Superfund, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Solid Waste Disposal Act, as well as state, tribal and local environmental laws — earning the wrath of major environmental groups.

“The simple approach will be attractive to a lot of people who wanted to work with this but had concerns about weakening those laws,” said Udall. “Adding other laws to the mix is what has caused concerns with previous bills and hampered efforts toward consensus.”

Calling past opposition a “spirited debate in the environmental community about the best way forward,” Udall pointed to two environmental groups who have already agreed to support the new bill: Trout Unlimited and Earthworks.

Trout Unlimited Chief Operating Officer Chris Wood released a statement in support of the bill, pointing to EPA data indicating that abandoned hardrock mines contaminate 40 percent of Western streams.

Udall also cited groups in Silverton, Leadville and Keystone, whom he said are anxious to see Good Samaritan legislation passed.

Notably absent from Udall’s list of confirmed supporters for the legislation, however, were the groups who have opposed past legislation, including the American Bird Conservancy, Clean Water Action, Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the National Environmental Trust, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Time will tell if those groups will support the narrower legislation.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.

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