ALBUQUERQUE – The federal government would be required to identify the most dangerous abandoned mines in the West and make plans to clean them under legislation introduced Tuesday in response to the spill of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater from a Colorado mine.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, outlined the proposal during a conference call with reporters. He said the main focus would be compensating communities affected by the spill, but another goal is to prevent future environmental disasters.
“There are tens of thousands of abandoned mines around the West. They are a ticking time bomb, slowly leaking hazardous waste into our streams and rivers,” Udall said, indicating more legislation aimed at reforming antiquated mining laws would follow.
An EPA cleanup team triggered the spill in August as it was doing excavation work on the inactive Gold King mine near Silverton. The plume turned the Animas River a sickly yellow, and the pollution tainted with heavy metals flowed downstream to New Mexico and Utah.
The EPA initially said a million gallons were spilled before revising it to three times that amount. State and tribal officials have complained that the EPA was slow to notify them about the spill and hasn’t been transparent about water quality data.
Members of Congress heard from those affected by the spill during a series of hearings last week. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said Navajo farmers and ranchers were initially forced to stop watering their crops and find other sources of water for their sheep and cattle.
While questions remain about the long-term effects on sediment along the rivers, New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn accused the federal EPA of misleading lawmakers about the severity of the spill by presenting incomplete data.
Udall said the legislation would require the EPA to work with states and tribes to develop a system for long-term monitoring of water quality in the Animas and San Juan rivers.
As for compensation, the legislation outlines allowable damages and establishes a claims office within the EPA. Udall’s office says property, business and financial losses would be considered for compensation.
There’s no appropriation attached to the legislation. Rather, any claims would be paid out of a permanent federal fund that covers court judgments or settlements.
The legislation has the support of Sens. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Michael Bennet of Colorado, both Democrats.
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-New Mexico, is carrying the bill in the House.
Udall and Heinrich also are planning to introduce legislation to reform an 1872 mining law to ensure companies pay a royalty for the minerals they take from public lands.
They say the royalties – similar to what is paid by oil, natural gas and coal companies – would help pay to clean up abandoned mines.
The Interior Department, which is separate from the EPA, has been asked to investigate the Gold King blowout. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell insisted Tuesday the inquiry would be independent.
Jewell, who was in Denver for an endangered-species announcement, said she expected the investigative report to be done in mid-October.
Associated Press Writer Dan Elliott in Denver contributed to this report.