It could become easier for communities to play a roll in cleaning up abandoned mine sites in the coming years if a bill jointly backed by Montana's two senators gets traction in Washington, D.C.

It could be the next significant step in dealing with an environmental problem that not only plagues Montana, but the entire West.

Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer once called it "Montana's Restoration Economy," and over the past couple of decades there's been a marked uptick in mine restoration and cleanup.

But while multi-million-dollar projects like the Mike Horse Mine cleanup have made significant progress, smaller mines haven't seen the same activity. That's where the new "Good Samaritan Remediation of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act" could help.

"It is a bipartisan bill," notes GOP Sen. Steve Daines. "It's going to help remove the obstacles for cleaning up these abandoned mines that we see in Montana. A lot of that gets back to cutting some burdensome red tape. We also want to shield these Good Samaritan organizations from liability that will allow us to increase the pace and the scale of reclamation."

"Old lions old wells, all those kind of things, have impacts to water and water is literally life," said Sen. Jon Tester from the Democratic side. "If we can get those cleaned up, the potential environmental costs that those leakages from those mines would go away and would ultimately in the end make us all healthier and save taxpayer dollars."

Mike Horse Mine cleanup east of Missoula.
Mike Horse Mine cleanup east of Missoula.

Recently introduced by Tester and Daines, the bill would create a pilot program to enable not-for-profit cleanup efforts, starting with lower risk projects to improve soil and water quality, making sure locals have the skills and resources to meet federal oversight.

The senators say the idea of the legislation is to make it easier for communities and other groups to launch cleanups of smaller mine sites.

"That is exactly correct," Tester told MTN News. "It's about making the environment better, not worse by far, by the way, significantly. And so you know we'll once again, I think working together, we'll hopefully come up with something that works for Montana 'cause we've got a lot of these sites, and works for the entire U.S."

Daines also sees economic benefits from the cleanup work.

"And in turn this will help support some of our rural Montana communities. It's going to be a job creating exercise and importantly to restore and enhance our environment. Montana has about 6000 abandoned hard rock mines. We have got to start getting these cleaned up and create incentive to do so."

The bill already has support from a variety of groups, including Trout Unlimited, the National Wildlife Federation and the National Mining Association.