EPA offers new plan to clean abandoned mines

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 reporters.

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 water supplies.

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.