Colorado Senator Mark Udall is urging the U.S. House of Representatives to push through a bit of legislation during its lame duck session which would allow western states to tap federal funds earmarked for coal mine clean-up, and use them to address safety and environmental issues at abandoned hard rock mining sites instead.
The bill, S.897, passed the Senate unanimously in 2011 and had begun to wend its way through the House when it became entangled in procedural weeds. If the current Congress expires without the House acting on it, the whole process will have to start from scratch next year.
Udall, a co-sponsor of the bill, has said that there is no time to waste.
"Abandoned hard rock mines pose serious public safety risks and health and environmental hazards. We need to leverage every tool available to reclaim these mines and protect the public," the Democratic senator from Colorado said. "I am calling on my colleagues in the House to pass this common-sense, bipartisan proposal. The longer we wait, the greater the risks to public health and safety and our environment."
The legislation would allow Colorado and other western states to use Abandoned Mine Land (AML) funds to mitigate safety and environmental concerns at abandoned hard rock mines.
The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) currently only allows these reclamation funds to be used for coal mines, which are not, in some cases, the most hazardous sites for public health and safety, Udall noted.
States used to be able to determine on their own how to use their AML funds. However, in 2006, the Department of the Interior made a determination that directed funds only to coal mine cleanup. “The point of the bill is to return to how AML funds were used prior to the 2006 determination,” a Udall staffer explained.
In Colorado, the law’s passage would mean that the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS), which currently conducts between 375 and 400 mine shaft adit closures per year, would be able to afford to take on an additional 100 or so such projects annually for the next few years, said Bruce Stover, the director of DRMS’s Office of Active and Inactive Mines.
The bill has encountered less than optimal support due to the fact that eastern states that have many more problems with coal mines than hard rock mines are happy to see the funds earmarked specifically for coal mine cleanup.
While the bill contains language about making funds available for acid mine remediation programs, Stover clarified that, in Colorado at least, the funds wouldn’t actually be used for water treatment. Rather, his department would use them strictly to address safety matters at abandoned mines (such as sealing mine shaft adits).
According to a report filed with the National Library for the Environment, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), enacted in 1977, established reclamation standards for all coal surface mining operations, and for the surface effects of underground mining. It also established the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) program to promote the reclamation of sites mined and abandoned prior to the enactment of SMCRA. To finance reclamation of abandoned mine sites, the legislation established fees for coal production.
These collections were divided into federal and state shares, but some of the funding that was owed to the states was never allocated and simply accumulated over the years. The act was reauthorized in 2006, spelling out a payback plan for the states, but stipulating that the funding couldn’t be used for non-coal related reclamation projects.
New Mexico, Colorado and other western states affected by the legacy of abandoned hardrock mines “didn’t feel it was fair” that they couldn’t use those funds to mitigate safety concerns at abandoned hardrock mines, Stover said. This was the genesis of S.897.
Colorado’s share of the SMCRA payback was about $35 million over seven to eight grant cycles, Stover said. “We have had five of them already, and spent the money solely on coal mine environmental restoration.”
At this point, if the bill succeeds, “it would free up a little more money to do more safety closures” of abandoned mines in Colorado, Stover said. “There are only a couple more funding cycles where this payback funding would even apply. It’s almost like the horse is already out of the barn.”
In contrast to coal mining, hard rock mining does not have a federal reclamation fund associated with it. According to Udall’s office, one reason that S.897 may have encountered difficulties is because the Obama administration favors creating a new, separate fund for hard rock mine cleanup, which requires instituting a new fee for mining companies, rather than reversing the 2006 determination regarding AML funds.
Udall has waged a high-profile campaign during his years in office to address the environmental legacy of historic hard rock mining in Colorado and throughout the West. That campaign includes finding more funds for cleanup efforts as well as empowering so-called Good Samaritans to undertake cleanup projects by limiting their Clean Water Act liability.
Udall is currently working with the Environmental Protection Agency to provide additional legal protection to Good Sams, although most experts believe that ultimately a legislative fix is required to solve the liability problem.