There are tens of thousands of abandoned mines in the United States - many emit acid drainage carrying heavy metals that contaminate the water quality of rivers and streams, according to the Clean Water Act.
A new policy from the Environmental Protection Agency protects Good Samaritans,or non-liable parties, that are willing to conduct mine reclamation at these sites from environmental liability under the Clean Water Act.
With the new policy, Good Samaritans have no liability or responsibility for the pollution at abandoned hard-rock mines if they want to help the environment by volunteering to clean up a portion of the problem.
"Before, good stewardship was punished because a person was vulnerable to getting sued for not finishing volunteer reclamation work," said Sandy Briggs, chairman of the Forest Health Task Force. "So even a person doing a portion of mining reclamation that had to stop because of a lack of funding could be sued for not finishing - this new act adds protection."
Briggs said that the new policy will promote stewardship and efficiencies in such reclamation.
"Now more people will be willing to do necessary mining cleanups," Briggs said. "Even if a person is only able to do a portion of the cleanup, it's a start in a great direction."
The abandoned Pennsylvania Mine is undergoing a major step with the ongoing exploration of the mine to investigate sources of heavy-metal-laden waters draining from the mine. The goal is to improve water quality in Peru Creek and the Snake River, where concentrations of heavy metals like cadmium and zinc are high enough to kill trout and impair other aquatic life.
"We are very optimistic that, after years of collaborative work, we have reached the point where we can now enter the mine to identify potential mechanisms to reduce the acid mine drainage impacting aquatic habitat in Peru Creek," said Brian Lorch, Summit County Open Space and Trails director.
Many community organizations have been looking at opportunities to clean up these sites and EPA policy clarifies that Good Samaritans who volunteer to clean up abandoned sites are not responsible for obtaining a permit under the Clean Water Act, both during and following a successful cleanup.
Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet voiced his approval of the policy issued by the EPA to reduce legal vulnerabilities for Good Samaritans who volunteer to clean up abandoned mine sites.
The purpose of the administrative tool is to reduce barriers under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act for volunteers to clean up abandoned hard-rock mines.
Bennet is a cosponsor of a bill to allow states like Colorado to use funds that were previously only available for the reclamation of coal mines to be used for hard-rock mines as well.
"The EPA announcement is a welcome step to allow Good Samaritan groups to begin cleaning up abandoned mines that are threatening Colorado's watersheds," Bennet said. "I applaud all the leadership on this issue to forge this path forward for Good Samaritans."
The EPA estimates there are 500,000 abandoned hard-rock mine sites throughout the country. Although referred to as abandoned, most of these mine sites have owners, either private individuals, corporations or state and federal land management agencies.
They are considered abandoned because the people or companies responsible for the mining are generally long gone or have very limited financial resources. Thus, those directly responsible for creating problems at a site cannot be forced to fix them.
So third parties - that often represent state or federal agencies, watershed groups, environmental groups, mining companies or other organizations - step in and perform reclamation. Typically, their goal is to improve water quality.
Gold was discovered along the Blue River at Breckenridge in 1859, one of Colorado's earliest discoveries and primarily a placer mining district in its early years.
During the 1860s as the Civil War raged, Breckenridge's population began to dwindle. Larger-scale hydraulic mining sustained the industry until the late 1870s when hard-rock mining took over. Large-scale hard-rock mining, and Breckenridge's role as a supply center for the surrounding area, resulted in a new era of prosperity for the town, according to Simone Belz, a local historian and director of the Frisco Historic Park and Museum.
Mining companies returned in 1898 with the first of the floating gold dredges. Dredging of the river bed destroyed much of the original town site - including many of Breckenridge's early historic buildings.
Dredging finally ended at the onset of World War II, signaling the end of the mining industry in the area following the vanishing economy left behind by miners, Breckenridge's population declined to approximately 250 people after the war.
"Things turned around once the ski industry really became established," Belz said. "1961 was the year that Breckenridge's first ski hill was built."
Today Breckenridge is considered one of Colorado's largest resorts, according to information from the Mountain Travel Research Program.