by Lisa Lambert
WASHINGTON The Bush administration on Wednesday
made it easier for private groups and local governments to
clean up abandoned hard-rock mines that often pollute nearby
streams and wildlife habitats.
Under existing pollution laws, volunteers cleaning
abandoned sites are liable for any pollution on the property,
even when contamination dates back 100 years.
But the Environmental Protection Agency said it will now
waive some of those laws when volunteers seek to clean up mines
long ago orphaned by their owners.
The agency's administrator, Stephen Johnson, said it would
still pursue finding the owners who skipped out on their mines.
"These laws, in fact, have deterred 'good Samaritans' from
cleaning up these sites," he said in a conference call with
Johnson said the EPA wanted Congress to protect groups that
cleaned mines from liability. "We would prefer legislation. It
is more efficient and it eliminates the potential of
litigation, but we're going as far as we can go today."
Johnson said his agency worried the congressional process
would slow rehabilitating the estimated 500,000 abandoned
hard-rock mines, which once produced minerals such as silver
and are located primarily in the West. Lead and arsenic from
the mines' waste wash into streams that connect to drinking
Last year, the White House backed legislation that would
provide a similar shield for volunteers, but also addressed
possible lawsuits under the country's guiding water pollution
law, the Clean Water Act. That bill never made it to the Senate
or House floor for a vote.
Last month, Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat from West
Virginia, introduced legislation to create a fund for restoring
abandoned hard-rock mines. The EPA guidance did not address how
volunteers could pay for the clean-ups.