Mr. Chairman, I cannot stress enough how critical it is that we address the threat of toxic waste sites in this Committee, particularly the threat these sites pose to the health of families, including children in nearby communities. I hope we can have a series of hearings on environmental cleanup issues that go beyond the issue for today’s hearing. I also appreciate your agreement to allow a Superfund oversight hearing in the Superfund Subcommittee tomorrow. Information we have gathered on the current status of toxic sites around the country makes it clear–the threat posed by these sites merits our immediate attention.
I am pleased that the EPA Administrator is here today, and, as you might imagine, I have a few questions for Administrator Johnson on EPA’s approach to cleanup programs, including abandoned mine cleanup.
It is worth noting that the Administrator is testifying today in support of efforts to rollback environmental laws and standards that would provide a direct financial benefit to industry. The enthusiasm shown by this Administration for waivers and rollbacks of environmental laws that protect public health is striking. Proposals to streamline environmental cleanup by undermining standards is the wrong approach and raises the risk to communities that things will get worse, not better.
Abandoned mine sites pose a serious threat to water resources. Mine wastes frequently contain high levels of heavy metals, including mercury, and arsenic. Cyanide and other hazardous chemicals are used in mine operations. In California, it is estimated there are 47,000 abandoned mines.
If mishandled, well-intentioned efforts can have disastrous results. In fact, in my home State we have a clear example of a well-intentioned cleanup effort gone wrong. I will briefly describe that experience to highlight why environmental rollbacks are the wrong path to take when it comes to cleaning up abandoned mine sites.
The experience at the Penn Mine in Calaveras County, California was well-intentioned but poorly executed and is instructive. This mine site has been used to justify the so-called “Good Samaritan” initiatives because it involved litigation and significant cleanup costs. As you will see, the limited regulatory review and poor engineering at this site made a bad situation dramatically worse. Let me read from a letter from a long list of groups opposing the “Good Samaritan legislation” and what they have to say about the lessons of Penn Mine:
“At Penn Mine, the waiving of environmental review coupled with an egregious lack of understanding of complex geochemical and hydro-geological processes at the site led to exacerbated water quality problems...accelerat[ing] the formation of acid mine drainage by up to one million times.” A prominent geochemist testified that “the facility could not have been better designed had its intention been maximum production of toxic acid mine drainage.” There is a very long list of groups on this letter opposing the rollback legislation, including both S. 1848 as well as S. 2780 and with good reason. (See letter for groups attached)
There is a much better way to approach this issue. First, EPA does in fact have significant administrative authority and could streamline the cleanup process with model orders under Superfund. These orders could contain appropriate liability relief, could be limited in scope and could maintain environmental standards. EPA has some experience with this approach and with effort could do more.
I appreciate well intentioned efforts to allow so-called “Good Samaritan” cleanups to proceed more efficiently. However, environmental rollbacks are not the answer. The Good Samaritan proposals do not even contain the basic protections of the Brownfields law and raise the risk that things will get worse not better. There is another way that does not involve rollbacks or waivers, or giveaways to industry. We also cannot afford to lose sight of one of the key parts to any solution to the toxic waste problem. Superfund needs to be funded and polluters must once again pay into that fund. The need for cleanup of abandoned mine lands dwarfs any Good Samaritan Initiative. This is a large complex problem and the Good Samaritan proposals are a drop in the bucket. Worse if they go wrong.