Statement of Senator Jim Jeffords, I-Vt.
EPW Oversight Hearing About Potential Liability
and Abandoned Hard Rock Mine Cleanup
Mr. Chairman, the title of this hearing implies that potential liability is the main deterrent to the cleanup of the thousands of abandoned mine sites in our country. I believe that this is only part of the picture, presented in a manner designed to move us in only one direction—toward unnecessary waivers to environmental statutes that will cause undue risk to human health and the environment. The true story becomes apparent as one evaluates the nation’s hard rock mining policies. There are estimated to be over 500,000 abandoned contaminated hard rock mines in the United States, including three copper mines in Vermont that have been languishing on the nation’s National Priorities List for years. In 2004, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General estimated that the potential cleanup costs nationwide could be as much as $24 billion. Can we expect Good Samaritans to volunteer to pay more than a small fraction of the cost to clean up the nation’s abandoned mines? Of course not. How then can we solve this problem? I propose a two-fold solution. First, we need to fully fund the Superfund program so that the EPA has the ability to do its job and clean up the contaminated toxic mining sites around the nation. Due to this Administration’s failure to seek reinstatement of the Superfund fees, the Superfund program is limping along with about 35 percent fewer dollars in real terms than in 1993. Second, the EPA needs to take action to prevent new abandoned mines. In a report I requested, the Government Accountability Office recommended that the EPA issue long-overdue rules to require mining companies to set aside money now for existing and future cleanups. Just yesterday, I co-sponsored legislation authored by Senator Cantwell that would require the EPA to take this exact action. The EPA has not pursued those rules, and instead, chose to put forward a legislative proposal to waive environmental statutes. Rather than focus on comprehensive long-term solutions, today’s hearing reaches for another reason to justify waiving environmental statutes. I urge my colleagues to consider the following questions as you listen to today’s testimony. First, is liability actually an impediment? There are several abandoned mine cleanups that have gone forward under the EPA’s existing authorities. Second, what would motivate someone to become a so-called Good Samaritan? It is conceivable that a state or local government would have an interest in cleaning up a water supply for drinking water purposes. It seems contrary then, to permit the waiver of drinking water standards as part of a cleanup action. But, this is exactly what one legislative proposal would permit. Third, why would a for-profit entity spend millions of dollars on cleanups unless it had a financial interest? The legislative proposals referred to this Committee would permit re-mining at cleanup sites, without the protections of existing environmental statutes, making these permit schemes a tool for future pollution. Fourth, doesn’t the public have a clear interest in seeing that abandoned mine cleanups occur? Some legislative proposals appear to intentionally restrict the public’s role by minimizing public notice and comment, waiving NEPA, and attaching legal privilege to some documents. I could go on and on, but in the interest of time, I will submit my full list of questions for the record. Mr. Chairman, I believe our focus at today’s hearing is inadequate, and I urge our colleagues to take a look at the big picture. Thank you.