Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding a hearing on this important issue. Last year the EPA’s Inspector General released a report stating that hard-rock mine sites would soon become the biggest drain on an already strained Superfund program. That report identified 156 hardrock mining sites, including copper, gold, iron ore, lead and silver mines, which could cost anywhere from $7 to $24 billion to clean-up. That figure is five to 12 times EPA's average annual Superfund budget. While this legislation exempts sites eligible under Superfund, I think that these estimates can help us to realize the potential clean-up costs.
These estimates are made all the more frightening by the fact that, in 1993, the Mineral Policy Center estimated that, nationwide, there are over one-half million abandoned hardrock mine sites in the US. The same organization estimated that it would cost between $32 billion and $72 billion to reclaim about 363,000 sites – the ones it classified as contributing the most contamination. If there is a way to clean-up some of these sites, without placing such a heavy burden on the taxpayer, Congress should be jumping at the opportunity to make it happen.
Anyone who has driven westward up the I-70 corridor in Colorado from Denver, or on many other mountain roads throughout the Rocky Mountain West, has seen the impact of abandoned mines on the landscape. These sites, which dot the landscape, are called “abandoned mines” because there is no longer anyone who is legally responsible for their clean-up due to the fact that the owners have died or mining firms have long gone bankrupt. When responsible parties can still be located, they often do not have the resources to properly remediate these sites. In the meantime, these abandoned mines continue to pollute the surrounding land and water with toxic surface runoff and tailings.
Allowing outside parties to contribute to the clean up of abandoned mines in Colorado and across the West is a common sense approach to dealing with what is a continuing environmental problem. The legislation that Senator Salazar and I have introduced, S.1848 “The Cleanup of Inactive and Abandoned Mines Act,” would shield Good Samaritans from legal liability for environmental damage they did not generate. A Good Samaritan is a company, individual, or any group made of entities not responsible for the mine waste that is willing to clean-up historic mine residue at no cost to the taxpayers. Good Samaritans should be rewarded for doing the right thing, not put at legal risk. This legislation has been years in the making and I am pleased that we are here before the Committee today with a bi-partisan solution.
The legislation will provide legal protections for mining firms, communities, non-profit organizations or individuals that step in to clean up these abandoned mines from liability under federal and state laws, but it also contains stringent requirements to prevent abuse.
A Good Samaritan permit would only be issued if the interested party submits a concrete action plan that identifies problems that need to be fixed and includes a clear plan for completion. The permit application and work plan would also have to be approved by the relevant state agencies in order to be valid. After the permit is approved the sites would be subject to ongoing monitoring to ensure that the remediation is completed as the permit states it will be; permitees would be subject to heavy fines for non-compliance with their permit.
Before I close, I would like to take a moment to extend a special welcome to Dennis Ellis, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, and Scott Lewis with Anglo-Gold. Both of these gentlemen are Coloradans, and I thank them for making the trip out to DC to share their perspectives on this important issue.
Thank you again for holding this hearing, Mr. Chairman. We have a window of opportunity to accomplish a “win-win” solution for the environment and the taxpayers. I intend to continue working with you, Senator Salazar, and our colleagues in the Senate and the House in developing legislation this session to allow for deliberate and conscientious abandoned mine land clean-ups.