'President Bush is clearing legal roadblocks that for too long have prevented the cleanup of our nation's watersheds. Through EPA's administrative action, we are reducing the threat of litigation from voluntary hardrock mine cleanups and allowing America's Good Samaritans to finally get their shovels into the dirt,' said U.S. EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson.
Under a set of policies and model tools, EPA and volunteer parties will now be able to enter into 'Good Samaritan Settlement Agreements.' These agreements provide key legal protections to Good Samaritans as non-liable parties including a federal covenant not to sue under the Superfund law, also know as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), and will provide protection from third-party contribution suits. Other tools released include a model comfort letter intended for Good Samaritan parties.
There are an estimated 500,000 orphan mines in the United States, most of which are former hardrock mines located in the West. Thousands of watersheds and stream miles are impacted by drainage and runoff from these mines, one of the largest sources of water pollution in the region.
In many cases, the parties responsible for the pollution from orphan mine sites no longer exist or are not financially viable. Yet, a variety of interests, which range from nonprofit organizations to state and local governments, are willing to voluntarily clean up these abandoned sites although they are not responsible for the pollution. Many potential Good Samaritans have expressed concerns that they may be held liable under the Clean Water Act and CERCLA, which have prevented many cleanup projects from moving forward.
At many orphan mine sites and processing areas, disturbed rock and waste piles contain high levels of sulfides and heavy metals. These piles, when exposed to air and water, undergo physical and chemical reactions that create acid drainage. As this drainage runs through mineral-rich rock, it often picks up other metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and zinc. When this runoff enters local streams and rivers, it can severely degrade water quality and damage or destroy insect, plant and animal life.