MAC: Mines and Communities

Good Samaritans Can Clean Orphan Mines Without Liability

Published by MAC on 2007-06-11

Good Samaritans Can Clean Orphan Mines Without Liability


11th June 2007

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is setting aside legal roadblocks that stop Good Samaritan volunteers from cleaning up orphaned hardrock mine sites. The runoff from these abandoned mines is responsible for degrading water quality throughout the western United States.

"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 Johnson.

The agency is issuing the "Interim Guiding Principles for Good Samaritan Projects at Orphan Mine Sites," a set of policies and model tools, so that EPA and volunteer parties will be able to enter into Good Samaritan settlement agreements.

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.

There are nonprofit organizations, state and local governments that are willing to clean up these abandoned sites although they are not responsible for the pollution. But potential Good Samaritans worry that they may be held liable under the Clean Water Act and CERCLA, which have prevented many cleanup projects from moving forward.

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 known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, CERCLA, and will provide protection from third-party contribution suits.

The EPA has also issued a model "comfort letter" intended for Good Samaritan parties.

The administrative tools preserve the idea under CERCLA that responsible parties should pay for cleanup. These tools do not, nor are they intended to, absolve responsible parties of their liability under existing federal law for any environmental pollution.

At many orphan mine sites and processing areas, disturbed rock and waste piles contain high levels of sulfides and heavy metals. Exposed to air and water, these piles undergo physical and chemical reactions that create acid drainage. As this drainage runs through mineral-rich rock, it can pick up other metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and zinc.

When this runoff enters local streams and rivers, it can degrade water quality and damage or destroy insect, plant and animal life, so the EPA is willing to assure the Good Samaritans that they will not be held liable for this damage.

Cleanup projects using the model Good Samaritan Settlement Agreement will require evidence of the Good Samaritan's financial responsibility to conduct the cleanup - either up-front financial assurances, or a description of financial assurances that will be obtained after the agreement is signed, but prior to the start of any work - subject to EPA approval.

The EPA says these voluntary Good Samaritan cleanups will most likely not solve all of the problems at the abandoned mines but the agency wants to encourage making incremental improvements that benefit the ecosystems impacted by these mines.

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