By Chris Wood and Mitch Krebs
Coloradoans know well the impact of abandoned mines and the risk they can pose to rivers and streams. Colorado has 13,000 miles of these streams, some of which are impaired from mining activities and miners long gone.
As CEO of Coeur Mining and as CEO of Trout Unlimited, we don’t necessarily agree on everything. With the recent introduction of Good Samaritan legislation, we recognize the need and opportunity we now have to clean up abandoned legacy mines on public and private land if Congress will act and pass this important bill.
Given the chance, we know we can make a positive impact on the issue of abandoned mines and their potential impact on our nation’s water.
As our nation grew a hundred years ago, mining played a vital role. Unfortunately, contemporary laws and regulations did not exist in the Gold Rush era.
Left over from long ago, abandoned mines present safety hazards, cause sedimentation and erosion, and often pollute water, threatening drinking water and decimating fish populations.
But many of these mines can be cleaned up, often in the span of days or weeks.
Take for instance the Doctor Mine near Berthoud, Colorado that we visited together this fall. Mined for gold and silver, the Doctor Mine closed around 1900, and for the next 100 years drainage from the mine containing metals such as zinc, cadmium, and lead polluted the West Fork of Clear Creek. Trout Unlimited recently led an effort to clean up the mine with the support of the U.S. Forest Service and Freeport-McMoRan, a mining company that operates a nearby mine.
However, the only reason that restoration took place on the Doctor Mine is that it is on public land. That meant the federal government assumed the liability for its cleanup — an important point.
As written, the law for abandoned mines is if you touch it, you own it — a liability most cannot assume. This leaves the Western U.S. littered with old mines that present safety hazards and endanger hundreds of thousands of miles of rivers and streams when — with a simple change in the laws — qualified entities like Trout Unlimited and Coeur Mining could begin tackling these problems.
Pollution from abandoned mines may be the most overlooked threat to water quality in the United States. Most vexing is that cleaning up most abandoned mines is not difficult, and companies such as Coeur Mining are willing to help. In the case of the Doctor Mine, it took the TU crew about three weeks to bury the mine tailings, a simple step that improved the water quality problems that had persisted for more than a century.
Congress can fix this. Both the mining industry and conservation groups have tried for decades to pass legislation that would remove the legal liabilities associated with good Samaritans cleaning up abandoned mines. It is time for Congress to take action.
The legislative solution is straightforward. Congress needs to pass good sam legislation, making tailored and targeted amendments to the Clean Water Act and the Superfund law so that local communities, organizations such as Trout Unlimited, mining companies such as Coeur Mining, and others can clean up abandoned mines without exposing themselves to legal liability. These groups bear no responsibility for these old sites, yet stand ready to take action to improve water quality and address the potential threats these sites present to human health, safety, and the environment.
If Congress can make these common-sense changes, it would create opportunity for public-private partnerships and leverage the broad and deep levels of experience that our organizations have to offer.
Toxic pollution has no place in our rivers and streams. With the help of Congress, and Colorado, we can tackle these old mines that have created safety issues and have impacted our streams and rivers for more than a century.
Chris Wood is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. Mitch Krebs is the president and CEO of Coeur Mining.
This article originally appeared in the Denver Post on December 7, 2018.