I thank our colleagues for being here today.
It is important for us to understand the root causes of the blowout at the Gold King Mine so future accidents can be prevented. EPA has already begun the process of improving its mine cleanup activities. Following the spill, EPA conducted a quick internal review and issued new guidance based on lessons learned in that evaluation.
There are two ongoing independent investigations, one by the Department of the Interior and one by EPA’s Inspector General. Both reviews will help us understand if more changes are needed moving forward.
It is also important to understand that acid mine drainage is not a new problem. It has plagued this watershed in Colorado for nearly a century. In fact, EPA was at the site at Colorado’s request to help find solutions to the long-standing problem of acid mine contamination.
The mines in this area leak more than 330 million gallons of acid mine drainage into the Animas River each year -- that is more than 100 times the amount released during the Gold King Mine spill.
Instead of scoring political points by blaming EPA for this accident, Congress should use this as an opportunity to focus on the long-standing issue of abandoned hardrock mines that pollute our rivers and streams. We should ensure that polluters pay the costs of the cleanup so that the American taxpayers are not stuck with the bill.
Some argue that waiving liability for cleanups is needed to address abandoned mine pollution. These so-called Good Samaritan approaches – unless they are very carefully crafted – are not the solution to the problems we face at the Gold King Mine and thousands of other mines across the nation. Without adequate oversight of cleanups, even well-intentioned efforts can have disastrous results and cost taxpayers even more money.
Some of the solutions that are available to us include using existing authority to facilitate cleanups, providing sufficient resources to EPA and the Federal land managers, requiring adequate oversight of cleanups, and working to pass reforms that ensure the polluter pays, not the taxpayer.
These steps are necessary because abandoned hardrock mine sites pose a serious threat to the waterways that people use for recreation and that provide drinking water to our children and families. Mine wastes frequently contain high levels of dangerous heavy metals, including mercury, lead, and arsenic. Cyanide and other hazardous chemicals are also used in mine operations.
In California, there are an estimated 47,000 abandoned mines. Nationwide, there are over 500,000 abandoned hardrock mines and cleanup costs are estimated to be as high as $50 billion.
Yet the federal government is barely making a dent in cleaning up abandoned hardrock mines. EPA spends an average of about $220 million per year, and the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service spend about $5 million and $20 million respectively – although Congress has appropriated less in recent years.
Each year in President Obama’s Budget, his Administration has proposed reinstating the Superfund tax so that polluters -- not taxpayers -- pay for cleanups. They have also proposed creating a fee on hardrock mining that would be paid into a fund for abandoned mine cleanups, just like coal companies pay to reclaim old coal mines.
Unfortunately, Congress has failed to act on these common-sense proposals. Yes, we are holding hearings, but more needs to be done.
EPA has also begun work to create financial assurance rules under the Superfund law for hardrock mining. These rules, which are decades overdue, will ensure that current and future mines provide sufficient funds for treating acid mine drainage once they are done mining. The mining industry is fighting these rules, but I encourage EPA to keep moving forward so that taxpayers are not left on the hook after the mine operators are long gone.
I hope this hearing will be the start of an important conversation on the need to stop pollution from the hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines across the country from contaminating our drinking water. I look forward to hearing Administrator McCarthy’s testimony today.