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Legal protection for Good Samaritans who want to clean up mines

WASHINGTON, D.C., September 1, 2016 -

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OP-ED: Legal protection for Good Samaritans who want to clean up mines
By: Chairman Rob Bishop

The biblical story of the Good Samaritan is a familiar one to virtually all young children. A man is robbed, brutally beaten, and left for dead. Two men pass him turning a blind eye to his predicament. A third man, however, a Samaritan, takes pity on him. He tends his wounds and pays for the costs of his medical treatment. As a reward for his mercy, he is taken to court for robbery and assault.

If that doesn’t sound like the right way to respond to an act of charity, that’s because it isn’t. Yet, the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental special interest groups approach analogous situations in a similar way across the country.

When a volunteer group wants to clean up polluted, abandoned mine lands, they are rewarded with hefty fines and frivolous litigation initiated by environmental special interest groups, thanks to open-ended statutes like the Clean Water Act. Under the current regulatory framework, charitable groups face liability for the water quality at abandoned mines the second they step foot on the land. In many cases, the mineral content of water near mines has never, in thousands of years, met “clean water” standards by nature. Is it practical to dis-incentivize conservation advocates from engaging in this work and punish them for trying to address a grave environmental challenge?

During a Natural Resources Committee hearing last November, the director of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Mine Reclamation, Eric Cavazza explained, “These liabilities deter motivated, well-intentioned volunteers from undertaking projects to clean up or improve abandoned sites, thereby prolonging the harm to the environment and to the health and welfare of our citizens.”

If we’ve learned anything from the EPA’s Gold King Mine blowout near Silverton, it’s that the federal government does not have the expertise, capacity or resources to reclaim abandoned mines. The spill illustrates vividly and disastrously the consequences in allowing government ineptitude to fester in our country’s abandoned mines.

We need to empower volunteer groups with the expertise, equipment and experience to administer the clean-up. The most logical solution is to legalize Good Samaritan mine clean-up for charitable groups that can get the job done safely, competently and much more quickly than the federal government can.

Rep. Doug Lamborn’s bill, H.R. 3843, is Good Samaritan legislation that does just that by allowing volunteer groups to obtain permits to access abandoned mines without the threat of lawsuits. After completing the permit process, which requires a comprehensive plan developed with the help of a professional engineer (which, incidentally, the EPA saw no reason to subject itself to at Gold King), they will be authorized to clean mines that are currently polluting our rivers. With these licenses in hand, charities will be given limited liability protections, enabling them to reclaim mines free from the specter of litigation.

This system, long overdue at the federal level, has been administered effectively in Pennsylvania. There, conservation groups like Trout Unlimited are allowed to help. According to a statement released by the group on June 15, they are working with state agencies, watershed groups and other partners to conduct more than 250 abandoned mine pollution cleanup projects. Aided by state-based Good Samaritan policy, Trout Unlimited is only one example of a bevy of volunteer groups with the capacity and the desire to pitch in; they simply need to be released from the constraints of nonsense regulations and unleashed on orphaned mines throughout the country.

Two companion bills, H.R. 3844 and H.R. 3734, combine to establish a foundation to fund mine reclamation, as well as to reallocate certain federal funds to educate aspiring mining engineers. This trio of bipartisan bills will treat the root of the problem — not just the symptoms — with the help of private donors.  Environmental special interest groups that profess to be seriously concerned about Abandoned Mine Lands should put their money where their mouths are by contributing to a foundation that is dedicated to repairing the problem. Together, the package will get government out of the way, facilitate the reclamation of abandoned mines, and educate future experts on how to avoid the EPA’s mistakes in the future.

Click HERE to view the article in The Denver Post.

Contact: Committee Press Office 202-226-9019

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