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By Jael Holzman – February 3, 2022 

GREENWIRE | Bipartisan legislation introduced today would make it easier for nonprofits and other outfits to help clean up abandoned hardrock mines by wiping away past liabilities for acquiring the sites.

The bill, authored by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), would clarity that so-called good Samaritans potential property owners looking to address dangerous or polluted sites are not financially responsible for the legacy mine waste. If enacted, the measure would set up a federal pilot program to provide up to 15 permits for good Samaritans cleaning up lower-risk projects.

The Democratic-led bill enjoys support from multiple Republican senators, including Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member John Barrasso of Wyoming and Sens. Steve Daines of Montana and Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho.

“Good Samaritans who are willing take it upon themselves to remediate the damage left behind at abandoned mines should be helped, not hindered," Risch said in a statement. “This legislation will allow this important work to go unimpeded so responsible mining can remain a key part of Idaho’s legacy and future.”

There are at least 140,000 hardrock mine sites known in the United States that were abandoned before the 1970s, according to the Government Accountability Office, which estimates that hundreds of thousands more likely exist. These sites

can present many dangers to the public, from physical safety issues like tunnel collapses to numerous environmental harms such as water contamination.

The 1970s saw the advent of federal rules against abandoning mine sites. However, since then, the cost of cleaning up waste and hazards left behind before those rules were in place has encumbered people and groups that want to pitch in.

As of late, efforts in Congress to get tax dollars for cleaning up these sites have been mixed.

Lawmakers added a landmark cleanup program for abandoned hardrock mine sites to last year's bipartisan infrastructure bill. But a more robust program to fund cleanups through royalty rates on miners was yanked from the budget reconciliation package (E&E Daily, Nov. 3, 2021).

The new bill would define a good Samaritan as any individual who is not a past or current operator of an abandoned mine site, who had no role in creating the waste and who is not potentially liable under federal or state law for cleaning it up.

Lawmakers have been unable to agree on good Samaritan legislation in the past. Some Democrats wonder whether the mining industry will take advantage of such programs, and say broader reforms are needed.

Conservation groups backing the new bill include Trout Unlimited and the Outdoor Alliance. The National Mining Association and the American Exploration & Mining Association also support the bill, according to a press release from Heinrich's office.

"This legislation is critical to removing the obstacles that are preventing the remediation of important land and water resources, and it deserves bipartisan support to clear the way for positive, on-the-ground environmental progress," National Mining Association President and CEO Rich Nolan said in a statement that the group provided to E&E News.

Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement provided to E&E News that the bill will “accelerate their clean up by removing barriers for conservation organizations and other partners to advance reclamation projects that safeguard clean drinking water and restore some of our most important waterways and fisheries.” 

To read this piece on the E&E website, click here