Hardrock mining: Missoula County joins state to urge cleanup reforms at U.S. House hearing

Over the past few years, Missoula County and its partners have secured $3 million to reclaim a number of abandoned mines and dredge ponds in Ninemile Creek, helping restore water quality and connect fish habitat for the first time in 70 years.

But to finish the job, the county and its partners, including Trout Unlimited and the Lolo National Forest, need an additional $5 million in funding, Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said during an oversight hearing Thursday with the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources.

“Missoula County alone contains 186 abandoned and inactive mines,” Strohmaier said. “An independent, dedicated funding source for hardrock abandoned mine cleanup is long overdue.”

Strohmaier joined Autumn Coleman of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, along with state officials from Colorado and the president of Trout Unlimited, to urge committee members to consider changes to rules surrounding the cleanup of abandoned hardrock mines.

Liability protection for so-called good Samaritans – including state and local governments and non-profits – should be extended, they said. Doing so would bring more volunteer organizations and funding sources to the table to help cover reclamation costs.

“Groups have come together to clean up, but state and federal grants don’t cover the cost,” said Coleman, who serves as manager of the Abandoned Mine Lands program with DEQ. “That’s where good Samaritans come in to help cover the gap. But federal liability rules under the Clean Water Act make that hard.”

Coleman said Arizona has an estimated 50,000 abandoned mines, according to government figures, while California claims another 47,000. Nationally, it’s estimated that as many as 500,000 abandoned mines pose environmental liabilities.

Together, they carry a cleanup cost estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, she said.

“Montana has thousands of abandoned hardrock mines with over 200 discharging adits,” Coleman added. “Between mine waste left in creeks and rivers and acid drainage coming from those mines, Montana has almost 2,500 miles of rivers and streams polluted by abandoned mines.”

Given the size and scope of the problem, state, local and tribal governments can’t cover the cleanup costs. Potential partners like Trout Unlimited are willing to help, and they have the fundraising capacity to do so.

But they’re often deterred due to issues around liability, Coleman said.

“At a time when we’ve seen cuts in Abandoned Mine Lands funding, help from good Samaritans is needed now more than ever,” Coleman said. “The AML Association would welcome the opportunity to work with the committee to enable good Samaritans to help conquer the monumental task of reclaiming our abandoned mines and impaired waters.”

Autumn Coleman of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, along with state officials from Colorado and the president of Trout Unlimited, urge U.S. House committee members to consider changes to rules surrounding the cleanup of abandoned hardrock mines.

Coleman cited the Lilly/Orphan Boy Mine on Telegraph Creek in Powell County as an example of a cleanup project that was stopped short over liability concerns.

Rep. Greg Gianforte, a member of the committee, asked her to elaborate on why the AML program stepped away from the project and left it unfinished.

“We did this cleanup and we have significant water quality, but there’s still a draining adit in the middle of that site,” Coleman said. “With so little funds between not only our program but good Samaritan partners, our hands are tied. On top of that, we’re both adverse to accepting that liability from the Clean Water Act.”

While Coleman and Jeff Graves, director of the Office of Active and Inactive Mines in the state of Colorado, lobbied for wider good Samaritan protections, Strohmaier called upon the committee to make cleanup funding stable and permanent.

Montana has a “long and rich” history of mining, he said, and because of it, thousands of abandoned hardrock mines have left behind a legacy of water pollution, harming both the environment and the local economy.

“I agree that good Samaritan initiatives will provide important opportunities for abandoned mine cleanup by non-governmental organizations, but we must not lose sight of the sheer scale of the problem faced by Western communities caused by abandoned mine pollution,” he said.

“Creating a dedicated, meaningful funding stream is essential to address the problem,” he added. “Short of this, state, local and tribal governments – and citizen groups – can only clean up a small number of projects, and our national waters, public health and economy will suffer.”