Trout Unlimited Gets Behind Cleanup Bills

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WASHINGTON, D.C.-Trout Unlimited on Thursday commended U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and Rep. Scott Tipton-both of Colorado-for introducing legislation that would make it easier for groups like TU to clean up abandoned hard rock mines in the West, and make watersheds healthier and more habitable to trout and salmon.

The legislation complements a 2012 guidance memo issued by the Environmental Protection Agency to clarify how the Clean Water Act applies to “Good Samaritan” abandoned mine cleanup projects, and provides another avenue for working toward a lasting solution to the vexing problem of abandoned mine pollution in the West.

“Cleaning up abandoned mines is one of the single-most important, least-addressed environmental challenges in the nation,” said TU President and CEO Chris Wood. “The geographic scope of the problem is staggering. EPA estimates that abandoned hard rock mines degrade nearly 40 percent of all western headwater streams. Estimates for clean-up range from $36-72 billion,” Wood said.

“The enormity and scope of the problem have led to a collective sense of futility that has fostered inactivity in many places,” Wood continued. “This bi-partisan legislation by Rep. Tipton and Sen. Udall would apply common sense to common problems for the common good.”

The bills would create a new Clean Water Act permitting tool for groups who clean up waste from abandoned mines solely for purposes of improving water quality. To date, the existing Clean Water Act permitting process has created obstacles for cleanup of certain abandoned mines by conservation nonprofits.

The role of Good Samaritans in abandoned mine cleanups is essential because on many of the sites affected by abandoned mines, there is no potentially responsible party, or the area is not high enough of a priority to warrant federal funding or enforcement actions. On these sites, there is often no party available as a target for an enforcement action. In addition, there is no hope for future enforcement action to drive clean-up of the area.

But the lack of clear protection from liability under the Clean Water Act for potential Good Samaritans has been a barrier to projects that involved any treatment of toxic water flowing off of abandoned mine sites. There are potentially two paths to addressing liability issues for Good Samaritans. The first is to identify a mechanism under existing law that would facilitate Good Samaritan projects. The EPA’s 2012 guidance is a positive step, and TU looks forward to testing it to see if it will overcome remaining concerns that have prevented Good Samaritans from completing certain types of cleanup projects.

The other path is through the legislation introduced today by Sen. Udall and Rep. Tipton that provides that Good Samaritan abandoned mine cleanups may comply with Clean Water Act permitting requirements if the projects produce significant improvements in water quality for a specific period of time, implement best design and management practices, and include appropriate monitoring.

“These paths are not mutually exclusive, and we would like to work with EPA on administrative solutions and with Congress to find workable legislative solutions,” said Steve Moyer, TU vice president for government affairs. “We thank Rep. Tipton and Sen. Udall for introducing bills that would facilitate more Good Samaritan abandoned mine cleanups so that affected communities around the country will again have clean, fishable waters.”

TU has a long history of working to improve water quality and recover fisheries in watersheds degraded by abandoned mines. Thanks to a partnership with the EPA to provide liability relief under the Superfund law, TU has been able to clean up fisheries and water that has been affected by abandoned mines in Utah’s American Fork Canyon and Colorado’s Kerber Creek. Other restoration projects have helped improve habitat in Idaho’s upper Boise River, Montana’s Eustache Creek, and Nevada’s Maggie Creek, among others.

Perhaps the best example of the positive affect of Good Samaritan cleanups comes from Pennsylvania, where hundreds of mine treatment systems have significantly improved water quality and restored fish populations. Babb Creek, which had been on the EPA’s impaired streams list, is now a wild trout fishery, and brook trout have been found for first time in decades in Middle Branch. A recent assessment compared conditions in the West Branch Susquehanna River found that between 1972 and 2009, fish species increased 3,000 percent. TU hopes that the legislation introduced today by Sen. Udall and Rep. Tipton will be passed and signed into law so that these success stories can be replicated around the West.

Trout Unlimited is the nation’s oldest and largest coldwater fisheries conservation organization dedicated to conserving, protecting and restoring North America’s trout and salmon and their watersheds. Follow TU on Facebook and Twitter, and visit us online at tu.org.