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.