Cat on a Hot Stove-Lid: What We Should Learn from the Gold King Mine Spill

Posted on December 22, 2015 by Zach C. Miller

Mark Twain once wisely warned:

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it -- and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits on a hot stove‑lid.  She will never sit on a hot stove-lid again -- and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more.

While trying to clear the collapsed entrance to the inactive Gold King Mine in Colorado, EPA contractors in August 2015 inadvertently released over 3 million gallons of metal-laden wastewater into a tributary of the Animas River.  Partly because of EPA’s involvement, and partly because high iron levels turned the Animas River orange for several days, the incident generated considerable controversy and attention.

Subsequent views about what we should learn and do as a result of this spill have been quite divergent and, in this writer’s view, off the mark. 

As might be expected during this election season, one response was protracted administration-bashing Congressional hearings, aimed at the heads of both EPA (criticizing the Agency for not better controlling its contractor at this remote mountain site) and the Department of the Interior (which has no responsibility for the site but issued a requested report on the spill).  Not surprisingly, these blame-and-shame hearings were not focused on, and did not produce, constructive information or plans for preventing such events in the future.  However, they did cause EPA remedial efforts and related U.S. transactions at inactive mine sites to be put on hold, which was counter-productive for dealing with this problem. 

At the other extreme, some environmental advocates have asserted that this wastewater release from an inactive mine supports their view that U.S. mining law should be fundamentally overhauled, including to provide for substantial royalty payments to the government and imposition of major financial assurance requirements on miners under CERCLA Section 108.  Those calls ignore the fact that this historic site pre-dates subsequently adopted mine reclamation and bonding requirements imposed on current mines under state and federal law.  They also represent a sea-change in mining law that goes far beyond this inactive mine issue, would occur at a difficult economic time for the mining industry, and is unlikely to gain traction in this polarized political climate. 

Congressional reactions reflect those widely disparate positions, with new proposed bills ranging from a narrow proposal for grants to mining colleges to study the problem (H.R. 3734) to a broad mining reform act that imposes substantial new fees and royalties (H.R. 963).  One other proposed bill would freeze DOI’s Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Program at $17 million per year and institute a “Good Samaritan” program to encourage third-party volunteer clean-ups at AMLs (H.R. 3843), and another would create a foundation to accept donations for AML cleanups, with one-time matches from the federal government of up to $3 million per year (H.R. 3844). 

Many of these proposals are either political posturing or over-reaching, and others do not focus on or effectively address the problem of abandoned mines.  Moreover, they either are unlikely to go anywhere in Congress, or would accomplish little if they do.  

However, there are effective steps we should take if we learn the following key lessons provided by the Gold King spill:   

·         There are tens of thousands of abandoned mines like Gold King that are already discharging polluted wastewater to thousands of miles of streams.  If we do nothing, such discharges will continue and worsen, and occasional blow-out releases like Gold King are inevitable. 

·         The damage and economic impacts caused by these abandoned mine sites are real and will increase. 

·         These mine sites are very complex and expensive to fix. 

·         Some states and volunteer entities are willing to address these sites if existing liability disincentives can be removed.

Given these circumstances, we should focus on practical approaches that will achieve real, near-term, on-the-ground remedial actions.  Furthermore, the approaches must be backed by meaningful sources of funding, and be politically achievable in the current, polarized political climate. 

A good start would be adopting an effective “Good Samaritan” law addressing the existing disincentives for third parties to remediate abandoned and inactive mine sites, coupled with meaningful federal funding initiatives.  The Keystone Policy Center is currently working to achieve consensus on such an approach. 

A second practical approach would be to use CERCLA National Priority List (NPL) designation at select sites to provide funding where no viable mine operators remain.  The Gold King incident has served as a catalyst for removing past local opposition to NPL listing for the upper Animas River drainage.  That’s a good beginning. 

We should heed Twain’s advice and use the real lessons of Gold King to move beyond politics and take practical steps like those noted above to start fixing these old mine sites.  And we should stop getting mired in the same, currently dead-end debates that lead to doing nothing and can be put aside for another day – lest we be like the cat that will never sit on a cold stove-lid.

Minefields (Still) Ahead: EPA’s Improved Good Samaritan Policy for Abandoned Mines Doesn’t Pan Out

Posted on April 7, 2014 by Zach C. Miller

For over forty years, the risk of incurring major liability under the Clean Water Act (CWA) has effectively discouraged “Good Samaritan” volunteers from cleaning up abandoned hardrock mine sites throughout the U.S. Past efforts to amend the CWA to remove this disincentive have been blocked, based in part on the assumption that EPA policies alone should be sufficient to remove the threat of CWA liability and effectively encourage such cleanups. 

In the words of the Gold Rush prospectors, that assumption and related agency policies have simply not panned out. A Good Samaritan Initiative adopted by EPA in 2007 and clarified and “improved” in 2012 has had virtually no effect on removing this threat of CWA liability or causing actual cleanups involving water impacts to occur. Meanwhile, willing Good Samaritans continue to be discouraged from conducting useful remedial actions, and these problem sites remain untouched.

During this same period, flexible state and federal “brownfield” and voluntary cleanup programs have cleaned up hundreds of former industrial sites and revitalized key urban areas, including in lower downtown Denver. But some members of Congress have rigidly refused to apply similar common-sense approaches to abandoned mine sites.

The time has come to recognize that informal agency policies encouraging these voluntary mine cleanups have not fixed and legally cannot solve this long-standing problem and to embrace the practical types of legislative approaches that have worked in the urban brownfield programs. The Good Samaritan CWA amendments introduced in 2013 by Senator Udall and others offer just such a practical solution. Past opponents of such legislation should acknowledge that agency efforts alone cannot remove the existing disincentive for cleaning up these sites and should support this modest, practical step to facilitate these mine cleanups.  

The Problem. According to the GAO, there are over 160,000 abandoned hardrock mines, mainly in the western U.S., that can leach heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic into the environment. EPA’s estimate is over three times higher. EPA further estimates that historic mines have contaminated over 40 percent of the watersheds in the west and would cost more than $35 billion to clean up. These former mines are considered “orphan” sites, because their owners and operators are either dead, defunct or insolvent.

Remediating these sites has proven to be an intractable problem for several reasons. One is the technical difficulties and enormous costs of remediating such sites in full compliance with applicable environmental laws. Another is the risk of incurring substantial liabilities or obligations under those laws for a non-compliant or partial clean up.

The Disincentive. While CERCLA contains a “Good Samaritan” provision that shields qualified non-liable volunteers from incurring liability under that law when they conduct voluntary remedial actions, the Clean Water Act (CWA) currently contains no such exemption. Because the most serious of these abandoned mine sites involve impacts to water quality, this threat of CWA liability has severely inhibited both private Good Samaritans and state and local governments from conducting common-sense, voluntary cleanups that would significantly improve the affected watersheds.

Beginning in 1995 and continuing to the present, Senator Baucus and others have introduced various “Good Samaritan” amendments to the CWA aimed at removing this major legal disincentive. However, because the amendments would have allowed less than full compliance with otherwise applicable water quality standards and discharge permit requirements, certain NGOs and members of Congress to date have strongly opposed and defeated such efforts.

This well-intentioned opposition has been misguided and a classic instance of the perfect being the enemy of the good. By demanding that remediation of these orphan sites be fully compliant and permitted without exception, only a handful of minor abandoned mine cleanups involving water have occurred during the last four decades.

Ineffective EPA Initiative. To address this Congressional logjam and currently discouraged Good Samaritans, EPA has laudably attempted to address this disincentive by adopting in 2007 an administrative “Good Samaritan Initiative”. The Initiative consisted of an EPA statement of Interim Principles and a “Comfort Letter” and model settlement agreement offered to non-liable entities that volunteer to remediate abandoned hardrock mines. This initial guidance focused primarily on the fact that, under the CERCLA 121(e) “permit shield,” no permit would be required under the CWA or other laws while an on-site CERCLA “removal” action was occurring. However, that guidance did not address the fundamental question troubling Good Samaritans about what happens once the removal is completed but some discharge unavoidably continues. As a result, that Initiative did little to allay those concerns and had no appreciable effect on increasing efforts to remediate abandoned mines with water impacts.

In recognition of that ineffectiveness, EPA in December 2012 attempted to bolster its 2007 Initiative by issuing a guidance Memorandum describing two clarifications to the 2007 Guidance. The first was that a CERCLA removal action could be extended through periodic monitoring or other activities, which would lengthen the period when the CERCLA permit shield would apply. However, the prospect of being engaged in a very-long-term CERCLA action has neither enthused Good Samaritans nor addressed their root concern about CWA liability once the CERCLA action is done.

To address that key issue, EPA further clarified that, based on the application of five listed factors, a Good Samaritan cleaning up an abandoned mine “might” not be considered by EPA to be a liable “operator” required to obtain an NPDES discharge permit. All of those factors relate to whether the volunteer has the “power or responsibility” to access the site and control the ongoing discharge after its remedial action is finished.

While issued with much fanfare in 2012, this “improved” Good Samaritan Initiative has again had virtually no effect on addressing the concerns of potential volunteers or increasing cleanups of these sites, for several reasons. First, EPA has emphasized that this Initiative merely explains its current interpretation but is not binding on EPA, third party NGOs, or the courts and “may not be relied on to create a right or benefit … by any person.” Not exactly the assurance that Good Samaritans want and need. Second, EPA stresses that this guidance applies only to Good Samaritans at orphan mine sites, but the factors for determining whether an entity is a CWA-liable “operator” cannot be unique to those parties. As a result, potential Good Samaritans have rightly been skeptical whether they can make any potential CWA liability vanish simply by arranging that their right to access and conduct operations on the affected site terminates upon completion of some defined task. If a mining lessee or contractor attempted such an arrangement, EPA and the courts no doubt would reject any claim it was not a CWA-liable operator. There currently is no legal basis to treat volunteers any differently. This point also offers no comfort to a governmental volunteer, who likely will always have the power of access and thus trigger operator liability.

The 2012 memo also repeatedly indicates that, if a Good Samaritan is not deemed a responsible operator, then the site owner would be required to comply with NPDES permitting requirements. But EPA ignores the fact that, at these orphan sites, there simply is no owner (unless it is the U.S., which to date has largely ignored its own liability).

Over a year after issuance of this “improved” Good Samaritan Initiative, it is clear that this EPA policy has been ineffective in increasing mine cleanups or addressing the CWA legal disincentive for such actions. To the contrary, several groups dedicated to these voluntary efforts have made clear that these nonbinding agency guidance documents have had little to no impact, and the groups’ efforts continue to be stymied in the absence of effective legislative reform.

The Proposed Legislative Fix. To address this problem, Colorado Senators Udall and Bennett have introduced S. 1443, the Good Samaritan Cleanup of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act of 2013. The bill creates a new Good Samaritan Permit under the CWA, to be issued by EPA or an approved State or Tribe, that would authorize a Good Samaritan volunteer to conduct a specified remedial action at an abandoned mine site. Those actions could include relocating waste rock, re-routing drainages, establishing wetlands, and similar measures that would greatly improve watershed conditions, but they would not need to result in complete compliance with otherwise applicable water quality standards or require a long-term discharge permit. Compliance with that special permit would then shield the volunteer from liability under the CWA and cure the current disincentive for volunteers willing to address these sites.

This huge, languishing problem of abandoned hardrock mine sites needs a solution. This bill isn’t perfect. But it’s a good start. Let’s get started.