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In wake of Animas River catastrophe, Bennet will back Good Samaritan law

Legislation could open the door for more mining reclamation
An abandoned mine wastewater pond is vivid with the colors of minerals, chemicals and vegetation Friday north of Silverton. The mines that settlers built in the booms of the 19th century are an ever-present part of the landscape in this mineral-rich part of Colorado.

The accident that turned the Animas River orange may be revitalizing efforts to allow more reclamation projects that wouldn’t be managed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Gold King Mine, now infamous for polluting the Animas River, is one of many mines near Silverton that have been oozing heavy metals for years.

Some of these smaller mines wouldn’t likely qualify for an EPA Superfund project, said Peter Butler, co-coordinator for the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

One way to open the door for more reclamation is U.S. legislation that would offer third parties some legal protection, he said. This kind of Good Samaritan legislation has failed at least 10 times.

But Sen. Michael Bennet, D.-Colo., plans to reintroduce the bill to give communities another tool to clean up abandoned mine sites, said Philip Clelland, a spokesman for the senator. Bennet plans to work with Congressman Scott Tipton, R.-Cortez, Clelland said.

Right now, there is some concern if a well-meaning group tried to mitigate pollution at a draining mine, it could be required to meet Clean Water Act standards. Failure could mean a lawsuit.

A Good Samaritan law would allow groups that don’t have any ties to a mine to do reclamation, but they would have to meet Clean Water Act standards.

Addressing several of those small mines could make a real difference in limiting heavy metals in the Animas, Butler said.

Ty Churchwell with Trout Unlimited said the Gold King Mine blowout demonstrates the need for the legislation, and his group will continue to advocate for it.

“As horrible as this event has been for us ... It has shined a light on a much larger problem,” he said.

The concern that a third party could cause damage, similar to the Gold King accident, has held the legislation back in the past, Churchwell said.

But third parties who want to clean up a mine would have to be permitted through the state or EPA, and Good Samaritan would be monitored after it was completed, he said.

Well-meaning groups would also be held liable if they caused any damage or released pollution, Butler said.

The legislation will be crafted with attention to detail, Clelland said.

“Given recent events that have changed everyone’s understanding of mining reclamation work, we will be working closely with all stakeholders to ensure we get the technical details of the bill right,” he said.

mshinn@ durangoherald.com

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