Help for America’s volunteer mine cleaners

New protections are being introduced to help so-called "Good Samaritans" clean up America's abandoned mines - without fear of being sued.

Volunteers willing to clean up polluting mine sites will now be able to enter into a Good Samaritan Settlement Agreements protecting them from litigation, the country’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced this month.

Stephen L Johnson, EPA administrator, said: “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 hard rock mine cleanups and allowing America’s Good Samaritans to finally get their shovels into the dirt.”

An estimated 500,000 orphan mines dot the United States landscape – most are former hard rock mines in the West.

Acid run off and drainage from them affects thousands of watersheds and stream miles and is one of the largest sources of water pollution in the region.

The parties responsible for the pollution from the mines often no longer exist or are not financially viable.

Agencies including not-for-profit organisations, state and local government, dubbed Good Samaritans, volunteer to clean up the sites.

But many are concerned they may be held liable under the Clean Water Act for any pollution that results during the clean up or failure to meet exacting standards.

Under the Clean Water Act those wanting to clean up a mine must normally obtain a discharge permit.

It requires any treatment to meet strict water quality standards and makes them responsible for the source of pollution.

This has deterred many from embarking on clean ups.

While they want to cut pollution at the site they may not be able to afford to complete the job to the act’s strict requirements thereby exposing themselves to massive fines or penalties.

Under existing federal law there is no room for partial clean ups.

The settlement agreements look set to change this.

David Gibbs

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