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EPA Takes Major Step Forward on Cleaning Up Abandoned Mines

Release Date: 06/06/2007
Contact Information: Jennifer Wood, (202) 564-4355 / wood.jennifer@epa.gov Roxanne Smith, (202) 564-4355 / smith.roxanne@epa.gov

New tools will help 'Good Samaritans' remove mine waste, restore watersheds, improve fisheries

(Washington, D.C. - June 6, 2007) The Environmental Protection Agency is clearing legal roadblocks that stop volunteers from cleaning up abandoned mine sites. The agency is issuing new policies that will reduce legal uncertainties for public and private entities, or Good Samaritans, to help reclaim hardrock mine sites responsible for degrading water quality throughout the western United States.

“President Bush is clearing legal roadblocks that for too long have prevented the cleanup of our nation’s watersheds. Through EPA’s administrative action, we are reducing the threat of litigation from voluntary hardrock mine cleanups and allowing America’s Good Samaritans to finally get their shovels into the dirt,” said U.S. EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson.

Under a set of policies and model tools, EPA and volunteer parties will now be able to enter into "Good Samaritan Settlement Agreements." These agreements provide key legal protections to Good Samaritans as non-liable parties including a federal covenant not to sue under the Superfund law, also know as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), and will provide protection from third-party contribution suits. Other tools released include a model comfort letter intended for Good Samaritan parties.

There are an estimated 500,000 orphan mines in the United States, most of which are former hardrock mines located in the West. Thousands of watersheds and stream miles are impacted by drainage and runoff from these mines, one of the largest sources of water pollution in the region.

In many cases, the parties responsible for the pollution from orphan mine sites no longer exist or are not financially viable. Yet, a variety of interests, which range from nonprofit organizations to state and local governments, are willing to voluntarily clean up these abandoned sites although they are not responsible for the pollution. Many potential Good Samaritans have expressed concerns that they may be held liable under the Clean Water Act and CERCLA, which have prevented many cleanup projects from moving forward.

"EPA's action today is a welcome and important step forward," said James Martin, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. "It will provide potential Good Samaritans with the reassurance they need to move ahead on cleaning up some of the mining sites in states like ours. Even more important, today's action will clear the way for passage of targeted federal legislation that will lead to even more voluntary clean-up projects at sites across the West. We will all benefit from cleaner water and expanded fisheries."

At many orphan mine sites and processing areas, disturbed rock and waste piles contain high levels of sulfides and heavy metals. These piles, when exposed to air and water, undergo physical and chemical reactions that create acid drainage. As this drainage runs through mineral-rich rock, it often picks up other metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and zinc. When this runoff enters local streams and rivers, it can severely degrade water quality and damage or destroy insect, plant and animal life.

Information on Good Samaritan tools: http://www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/publications/cleanup/superfund/factsheet/goodsam-tools-fs.html