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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

STATEMENTS ON INTRODUCED BILLS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS -- (Senate - October 13, 2009)

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

By Mr. UDALL of Colorado:

S. 1777. A bill to facilitate the remediation of abandoned hardrock mines, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Mr. UDALL of Colorado. Mr. President, I rise tonight to announce that I am introducing legislation designed to help promote the cleanup of abandoned and inactive hard rock mines that are a menace to the environment and public health throughout the country, but especially to the West.

In previous sessions of Congress when I was a Member of the House of Representatives, I introduced similar bills. Following the introduction of those previous bills, revisions were made to incorporate a number of changes developed in consultation with a wide range of interested parties. These parties included representatives of the Western Governors' Association, the Environmental Protection Agency, the hardrock mining industry, and environmental groups.

The bill I am introducing today is also the product of further consultations. It represents years of effort to reach agreement on establishing a program to advance the cleanup of polluted water from abandoned mines.

For over one hundred years, miners and prospectors have searched for and developed valuable hardrock minerals, such as gold, silver, and copper. Hardrock mining has played a key role in the history of Colorado and many other States. The resulting mineral wealth has been an important aspect of our economy and the development of essential products that we all take for granted.

However, as all westerners know, this history has too often been marked by a series of ``boom'' times followed by ``busts,'' when mines were no longer profitable. When these busts came, too often the miners would abandon their work and move on, seeking riches over the next mountain. The resulting legacy of unsafe open mine shafts and acid mine drainages can be seen throughout the country and especially on the Western public lands where mineral development was encouraged to help settle our region.

The problems caused by abandoned and inactive mines are very real and very large. They include acidic water draining from old tunnels; heavy metals leaching into streams, killing fish and tainting water supplies; open vertical mine shafts; dangerous highwalls; large open pits; waste rock piles that are unsightly and dangerous; and hazardous dilapidated structures.

Unfortunately, many of our current environmental laws, designed to mitigate the impact from operating hard rock mines, are of limited effectiveness when they are applied to abandoned and inactive mines. As a result, many of these old mines go on polluting streams and rivers and potentially risking the health of people who live nearby or downstream.

Right now, there are two serious obstacles to progress. One is a serious lack of funds for cleaning up sites for which no private person or entity can be held liable. The other obstacle is legal.

While the Clean Water Act is one of the most effective and important of our environmental laws, as applied to abandoned hard rock mines, it can mean that someone undertaking to clean up an abandoned or inactive mine will be exposed to the same liability that would apply to a party responsible for creating the site's problems in the first place. As a result, would-be Good Samaritans understandably have been unwilling to volunteer their services to clean up abandoned and inactive mines.

The Governors of our Western States have recognized the need for action to address this serious problem. They have adopted bipartisan resolutions on this subject, such as the position adopted in the 2007 resolution entitled ``Cleaning Up Abandoned Mines.'' In this resolution, the Governors urged Congress to take action to address liability issues and funding concerns. The Governors sent a letter in November 2007 expressing support for the previous version of the bill I am introducing today.

The bill I am filing today will help address this impediment and make it easier for volunteers, who had no role in creating the problem, to help clean up these sites and improve the environment. It does so by providing a new permit program whereby volunteers can, under an approved plan, reduce the water pollution flowing from an abandoned mine. At the same time, volunteers will not be exposed to the full liability and ongoing responsibility provisions of the Clean Water Act.

Unlike other bills that have been introduced on this topic, my bill only addresses Clean Water Act liability and does not waive any other environmental law. This is because I do not believe we have to go that far. There are administrative avenues and options available to Good Samaritans to address compliance without other environmental laws that may apply at these sites. However, such administrative options are not available for Clean Water Act liability. So my bill only addresses this restriction on moving forward on projects to clean up water releases.

The new permit proposed in my bill would help address problems that have frustrated Federal and State agencies throughout the country. As population growth continues near these old mines, more and more risks to public health and safety are likely to occur. We simply must begin to address this issue, not only to improve the environment but also to ensure that our water supplies are safe and usable.

Let me be clear, the bill does not address all the concerns some would-be Good Samaritan may have about initiating cleanup projects. I am committed to continue working to address those additional concerns through additional legislation and in other ways. But the bill I am filing today can make a real difference, and I think it deserves approval without unnecessary delay.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record a longer version of my statement.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:

Mr. UDALL of Colorado. Mr. President, today I am introducing legislation designed to help promote the cleanup of abandoned and inactive hardrock mines that are a menace to the environment and public health throughout the country, but especially in the West.

In the 107, 108, 109, and 110 Congresses, I introduced similar bills aimed at that result. Following the bill's first introduction in the 107 Congress, revisions were made to incorporate a number of changes developed in consultation with interested parties, including representatives of the Western Governors' Association, the Environmental Protection Agency, the hardrock mining industry, and environmental groups.

The bill I am introducing today is also the product of further consultations. It represents years of effort to reach agreement on establishing a program to advance the cleanup of polluted water from abandoned mines.

For over one hundred years, miners and prospectors have searched for and developed valuable ``hardrock'' minerals--gold, silver, copper, molybdenum, and others. Hardrock mining has played a key role in the history of Colorado and other states, and the resulting mineral wealth has been an important aspect of our economy and the development of essential products. However, as all westerners know, this history has too often been
marked by a series of ``boom'' times followed by ``busts'' when mines were no longer profitable. When these busts came, too often the miners would abandon their work and move on, seeking riches over the next mountain. The resulting legacy of unsafe open mine shafts and acid mine drainages can be seen throughout the country and especially on the western public lands where mineral development was encouraged to help settle our region.

The problems caused by abandoned and inactive mines are very real and very large--including acidic water draining from old tunnels; heavy metals leaching into streams, killing fish and tainting water supplies; open vertical mine shafts; dangerous highwalls; large open pits; waste rock piles that are unsightly and dangerous; and hazardous dilapidated structures.

Unfortunately, many of our current environmental laws, designed to mitigate the impact from operating hardrock mines, are of limited effectiveness when applied to abandoned and inactive mines. As a result, many of these old mines go on polluting streams and rivers and potentially risking the health of people who live nearby or downstream.

Right now there are two serious obstacles to progress. One is a serious lack of funds for cleaning up sites for which no private person or entity can be held liable. The other obstacle is legal.

While the Clean Water Act is one of the most effective and important of our environmental laws, as applied it can mean that someone undertaking to clean up an abandoned or inactive mine will be exposed to the same liability that would apply to a party responsible for creating the site's problems in the first place. As a result, would-be ``good Samaritans'' understandably have been unwilling to volunteer their services to clean up abandoned and inactive mines.

Unless these fiscal and legal obstacles are overcome, often the only route to clean up abandoned mines will be to place them on the nation's Superfund list. Colorado has experience with that approach, so Coloradans know that while it can be effective, it also has shortcomings. For one thing, just being placed on the Superfund list does not guarantee prompt cleanup. The site will have to get in line behind other listed sites and await the availability of financial resources.

We need to develop an alternative approach that will mean we are not left only with the options of doing nothing or creating additional Superfund sites--because while in some cases the Superfund approach may make the most sense, in many others there could be a more direct and effective way to remedy the problem.

The Governors of our western States have recognized the need for action to address this serious problem. The Western Governors' Association has several times adopted resolutions on this subject, such as its most recent resolution in 2007 entitled Cleaning Up Abandoned Mines, wherein the governors urge Congress to take action to address liability issues and funding concerns. WGA also sent a letter in November 2007 expressing support for the previous version on the bill I am introducing today.

The bill I am filing today responds to a legal obstacle, the potential liability under the Clean Water Act that now deters many would-be ``good Samaritans'' from undertaking efforts to clean up abandoned hardrock mines. Unlike other bills that have been introduced on this topic, my bill only addresses Clean Water Act liability and does not waive any other environmental law. That's because I do not believe that we need to go that far. There are administrative avenues and options available to good Samaritans to address compliance with other environmental laws that may apply at these sites. However, such administrative options are not available for Clean Water Act liability, and so my bill only addresses this restriction on moving forward on projects to clean up water releases.

To help the efforts of ``good Samaritans,'' this bill would create a new program under the Clean Water Act under which qualifying individuals and entities could obtain permits to conduct cleanups of abandoned or inactive hardrock mines. These permits would give some liability protection to those volunteering to clean up these sites, while also requiring the permit holders to meet certain requirements.

The bill specifies who can secure these permits, what would be required by way of a cleanup plan, and the extent of liability exposure. Notably, unlike regular Clean Water Act point-source permits, these new permits would not require meeting specific standards for specific pollutants and would not impose liabilities for monitoring or long-term maintenance and operations. These permits would terminate upon completion of cleanup, if a regular Clean Water Act permit is issued for the same site, or if a permit holder encounters unforeseen conditions beyond the holder's control. I think this would encourage efforts to fix problems like those at the Pennsylvania Mine.

The new permits proposed in this bill would help address problems that have frustrated federal and state agencies throughout the country. As population growth continues near these old mines, more and more risks to public health and safety are likely to occur. We simply must begin to address this issue--not only to improve the environment, but also to ensure that our water supplies are safe and usable. This bill does not address all the concerns some would-be Good Samaritans may have about initiating cleanup projects--and I am committed to continue working to address those additional concerns, through additional legislation and in other ways. But this bill can make a real difference, and I think it deserves approval without unnecessary delay.

For the benefit of our colleagues, I am including a brief outline of the bill's provisions.

Eligibility for Good Samaritan Permits--Permits could be issued to a person or entity not involved in creation of residue or other conditions resulting from mining at a site within the bill's scope. Any other similar person or entity could be a cooperating party to help with a cleanup.

Sites Covered by the Bill--The bill covers sites of mines and associated facilities in the United States once used for production of a mineral, other than coal, but no longer actively mined, but does not cover sites on the national priority list under Superfund.

Administration--The permits would be issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, or by a state or tribal government with an approved Clean Water Act permitting program.

Remediation Plans--To obtain a permit, an applicant would have to submit a detailed plan for remediation of the site. After an opportunity for public comments, the EPA or other permitting authority could issue a permit if it determined that implementing the plan would not worsen water quality and could result in improving it toward meeting applicable water quality standards.

Effect of Permit--Compliance with a Good Samaritan permit would constitute compliance with the Clean Water Act, and neither a permit holder nor a cooperating party would be responsible for doing any remediation activities except those specified in the remediation plan. When the cleanup is done, the permit expires, ending the Good Samaritan's responsibility for the project.

Report and Sunset Clause--9 years after enactment, EPA must report to Congress about the way the bill has been implemented, so Congress can consider whether to renew or modify the legislation, which under the bill will terminate after 10 years.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the RECORD.

There being no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:

S. 1777

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