Animas spill: Fix what’s broken, don’t break what works

Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Guest Column
Sunday, October 11, 2015

By Stuart Sanderson

The Environmental Protection Agency’s actions in releasing contaminants into the Animas River from the Gold King Mine has triggered much concern and debate about the agency’s actions at the site and what Congress may do to prevent such incidents in the future.

Adding to the public’s confusion are erroneous statements by some who see this as a platform for enacting even more onerous restrictions on active mining operations under permit in Colorado. One recent guest column even sought to justify the adoption of the federal Office of Surface Mining’s (OSM) flawed Stream Protection Rule (SPR), a rule that only applies to coal mining. Such a statement muddies the waters of logic. Coal mining did not cause this spill nor has it been associated with any such incidents in Colorado. But the same is also true for the state’s active hardrock and metals mines.

In other words, there is a big difference between mining in Colorado today and historic operations which took place prior to the modern era.

Mining built the state of Colorado, but there is an environmental legacy associated with older mines. When mines like Gold King commenced operations in the late 19th century, there were no environmental standards in place. There were no bonds to ensure the restoration of lands and site remediation once the operations had ended.

The situation is very different today. The public doesn’t fly in airplanes built during the Wright Brothers era and doesn’t drive Model T Fords. As technologies and environmental awareness have evolved, so has modern mining regulation. Hardrock and coal mines today are subject to separate but stringent regulatory programs, both administered by the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining & Safety.

In addition, dozens of federal statutes or their state counterparts regulate these operations, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Mine Safety & Health Act, and others. Modern mines are required to test water before receiving a permit and must continuously monitor water throughout the life of the operation. They must post bonds sufficient to ensure the restoration of the site if the operator becomes insolvent or does not perform the required work.

Today, Colorado remains a leading mineral producing state and a successful example of environmental protection. Our mines have won both state and national awards for outstanding reclamation and environmental achievement. In fact, the Office of Surface Mining (yes, the very same agency issuing the stream rule) honored one mine in Colorado as one of the top three examples of successful reclamation in the history of modern surface mining regulation.

The state has also received very high marks from the same federal regulators for its work in protecting the environment. In its most recent oversight report for 2014, the federal Office of Surface Mining’s evaluation of Colorado’s program showed that 95 percent of operations were free from any offsite impact.

Given the industry’s and the state’s track record of success, the recently proposed Stream Protection Rule is clearly a solution in search of a problem. The agency provides no justification for its application in Colorado. And far from providing additional protection, the rule is a massive bureaucratic exercise, one that would rewrite 475 rules on the books — imposing one-size-fits-all solutions on states and ignoring their expertise in regulation, even denying states a role in the process.

It would slow the permitting process to a crawl, and its only apparent justification is the creation of jobs in government to handle the implementation of this regulatory albatross.

One thing is clear. Rural communities in Colorado will continue to suffer and remain casualties in this war on America’s resources. Rep. Scott Tipton summed it best in a statement at the hearing last month on the rule in Denver: “OSM’s own analysis assumes a reduction in coal production and associated jobs as a direct result of the proposed rule. Those lost jobs and revenues will be keenly felt in communities throughout the nation. The resulting loss in jobs and revenues is very real, and OSM has not made a compelling case that this new rule is in any way necessary.”

If the Animas River tragedy and the Stream Protection Rule have any common thread, it is that big government is not the solution. The stream regulation will only expand federal powers at the expense of local communities, while the EPA’s own actions, and not that of the modern mining industry, triggered the most significant environmental incident in recent memory.

Rather than focusing on shutting down the coal industry, federal regulators would be better served by crafting solutions that would allow for greater public and private sector participation in cleaning up old mine sites, through the enactment of Good Samaritan legislation. Cleaning up these mines is a challenging task that will take time. It will also require consensus and cooperation among lawmakers. It’s time for Congress to act on Good Samaritan legislation. That and not OSM’s power grab is the right solution for the problem at hand.

Stuart Sanderson is president of the Colorado Mining Association.