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Western senators find common ground on ‘good Samaritan’ mine cleanup

 An abandoned mine in Tennessee Pass, Colo.
el toro
/
Flickr Creative Commons
An abandoned mine in Tennessee Pass, Colo.

A bipartisan group of Western senators introduced a bill to shield organizations from liability when they step in to clean up old mines on public lands. Supporters say it would remove a critical hurdle that’s blocked state and local governments, as well as nonprofits and other organizations, from working to improve water quality near abandoned mining sites.

John Gale, conservation director for the advocacy group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, says they’re “elated” by the proposed legislation, because liability concerns have effectively prolonged the environmental legacies of mining sites dotting the West.

“There are scores of abandoned mines that have been leaching toxic metals,” he said. “A number of watersheds have been completely sterilized. They no longer hold cold water fisheries.”

New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich and Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch introduced the “Good Samaritan Remediation of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act” in early February. A bipartisan group of co-sponsors now includes senators from Colorado, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming.

Josh Marcus-Blank, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s communications director, says she’s long believed in the need to clean up abandoned mines.

“The senator is happy that this legislation that she’s working on has support from Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “It’s also supported by both the mining industry and conservation groups, because it’s the right thing to do.”

Experts say there could be as many as 50,000 potentially dangerous abandoned mine features in Nevada alone. Features can include pits, trenches, waste, explosives, shafts and tunnels.

A spokesperson for the state’s other senator, Democrat Jacky Rosen, said she was reviewing the bill.

On the industry side, Rich Nolan of the National Mining Association issued a statement in support.

“Today’s modern mining industry has the expertise and desire to address legacy mine sites that were abandoned decades – even generations ago,” it said.

Brian Beffort directs the Sierra Club’s Toiyabe Chapter.

“I think Westerners from across the political spectrum share a love for our public lands, which explains the range of support for this bill,” he said in an email.

His organization neither supports nor opposes the proposed reform – at least for now. But he celebrates the bipartisan support for conservation efforts in the West, which can unite left-leaning environmentalists and right-leaning rural communities.

“Water doesn’t care who you vote for,” he said. “When it’s gone, it’s gone, and so is the rural way of life and wildlife habitats everyone loves.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Copyright 2022 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.