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House passes bill to push abandoned mine cleanup

One of three bills tied to Gold King Mine spill
Heavy amounts of minerals have long been an issue in the Animas River watershed, as shown in the colors in this 2013 photo. Some of the mineralization is natural, but scientists believe much is caused by drainage from abandoned hard-rock mines.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Abandoned mine land reclamation took a step forward in Congress this week as the House passed the “Bureau of Land Management Foundation Act,” which aims to set up funds to clean up abandoned mine sites.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., would create the Energy and Minerals Reclamation Foundation, which would be tasked with obtaining and using funds for the cleanup of abandoned coal mines, hard-rock mines and onshore oil and gas wells.

Hice’s legislation is part of a three-part bill package introduced to address abandoned mine cleanup. The other two bills include the Mining Schools Enhancement Act and the Locatable Minerals Claim Location and Maintenance Fees Act, which also includes good Samaritan language that was added by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.

The Foundation Act specifically refers to mines that are located on federally managed lands. If created, the foundation would be a nonprofit corporation that would not be associated with an agency or government establishment. It would be led by a board of directors appointed by the Interior Department secretary.

The purpose of the foundation would be to obtain and administer private donations to be used for the “activities and services of the BLM,” according to the bill. In addition to the cleanup of abandoned mine sites and oil and gas wells, these activities include caring for wildlife habitats, National Conservation Lands, and cultural, recreation and historical resources. The foundation would also raise money for educational and technical resources to help with the management of the Bureau of Land Management.

Though Tipton supported Tuesday’s passage of the Foundation Act, he believes it is just the first step in the process of reclaiming abandoned mines, and it needs to be followed by the passage of good Samaritan legislation, according to Liz Payne, a spokesperson for Tipton.

Payne said it is a positive step to raise money to do site cleanup, but good Samaritan groups need liability coverage, a key component of the language Tipton added to legislation. Such coverage would protect groups that have the technical expertise to reclaim abandoned mine lands from being held completely liable for unforeseen problems such as a mine blowout.

Hice introduced the bill in part because of the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine spill, so that more private sector resources could be dedicated to cleanup efforts.

“By incorporating private sector policies and procedures, H.R. 3844, the Bureau of Land Management Foundation Act, revamps and improves the cleanup of contaminated water in abandoned mine sites,” Hice said in a statement following the passage of the bill.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where it has been assigned to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Kate Magill is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald. Reach her at kmagill@durangoherald.com.

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