Good Samaritan’s Still Gridlocked

As mountain snow melts, toxic acid laced with dissolved metals such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, and zinc are fouling Colorado watersheds. Among the casualties: state environmental officials also have listed 32 sites along the Animas River in critical condition. The source of the contamination is abandoned mines—about 500,000 across the West, at least 7,300 in Colorado. Federal authorities estimate that the headwaters of 40 percent of Western rivers are tainted with toxic discharge from abandoned mines. Colorado Department of Natural Resources records show 450 abandoned mines are known to be leaking measurable toxins into watersheds. So far, 1,300 miles of streams have been impaired. But as bad as the damage is, community watershed groups, mining companies, and even state agencies contend they cannot embark on cleanups for fear of incurring legal liability.

Under the Clean Water Act, parties who get involved at abandoned mines and accidentally make matters worse, even over the short term, could be vulnerable to federal prosecution for polluting waterways without a permit. Obama administration officials two years ago promised to break gridlock on this issue, spurring a legislative fix to enable "good Samaritan" cleanups and devoting "significant resources" for watershed restoration. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acknowledged there is still gridlock and that more must be done to deal with tens of thousands of leaking abandoned mines nationwide. Salazar said there also is a lack of money in dealing with the mines, but that the administration remains committed to help. Meanwhile, U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet are asking the Environmental Protection Agency to clarify the EPA’s ability to help unaffiliated groups that want to clean up abandoned hardrock mines.