February 4, 2013--How to clean up abandoned mines -- without landing in court (High Country News)

Peter Butler's late October tour of abandoned hardrock mines began high on Red Mountain Pass near Silverton, Colo., off a highway so narrow that, in places, its shoulder crumbles off cliffs. Butler, a water wonk with springy silver curls, is the co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, a local watershed group, which has been cleaning up abandoned mines for 18 years. Standing on a buried mine waste pile, he pointed at a success story: Twelve years ago, an unlined ditch leaked water into the San Antonio Mine and reacted with pyrite -- fool's gold -- creating sulfuric acid. The acid dissolved naturally occurring metals, such as aluminum and zinc, dyeing the water that leaked out fantastic colors. "People looked at it and went, 'Wow, that's really pretty,' " Butler said. But it helped make the river below nearly lifeless for miles. So ARSG bought the water rights, filled in the ditch and diverted the water, keeping it from becoming contaminated. Acid mine drainage is a major problem in the West. In Colorado, over half of impaired streams are contaminated by metals, many from draining mines. Groups like Butler's want to help with simple solutions like this one, which has significantly reduced downstream levels of zinc, copper and cadmium. But overall, their impact is limited because many draining mines need actual water treatment -- something that small environmental groups won't do because: (a) it can be really expensive; and (b) they could be sued if the water still doesn't meet federal standards. Under the Clean Water Act, "Good Samaritans" who try to clean up a mine's drainage may become liable for any pollution that continues to flow from it. In the Animas River Basin, Butler's group has only worked on five of the most-polluted draining  mines; they're afraid to touch the 28 others. Attempts to change the law have failed repeatedly. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a memo that attempts to clarify Good Samaritans' liability. But environmental groups are still unsure, or downright skeptical, that it will help.

To view the full article, visit the High Country News. For a copy of the original article contact the WIP at (970) 247-1302 or stop by the office at 841 East Second Avenue in Durango, Colorado.