Congressional Natural Resources Committee chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) and three others held a conference call recently to talk about a package of legislative reforms to address failures leading to the Animas River spill in Colorado in August, and about historic challenges in the federal approach to abandoned mine reclamation.

Also involved were Subcommittee on Energy and Minerals chair Doug Lamborn (R-CO), Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA), and Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-NV).

Lamborn is the author of HR 3843 “Locatable Mineral Claim and Maintenance Act;” and Hice is author of HR 3844 “Energy and Minerals Reclamation Foundation Establishment Act of 2015.”

Workers for the Environmental Protection Agency used heavy equipment to enter the defunct Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado, near Durango, Aug. 5, 2015, and sprung a leak. A massive one.

Water tainted with heavy metal, especially lead, gushed from Gold King into the nearby Animas River, turning it a solid mustard color. It flowed downstream for dozens of miles crossing state lines into Utah and New Mexico and damaged the lives of thousands people who depend on river water.

Published reports by the U.S. Geological Survey, noted about 3 million gallons of heavy metal filled wastewater spilled into the river. “That’s about 60,000 bathtubs full,” the report stated.

Bishop said the Department of Interior recently released “a technical evaluation undercutting EPA’s assertion that the Animas River spill was inevitable.” Instead, he said, the Department of Interior’s assessment clearly states, “the spill was preventable and EPA is to blame.”

There are some 400,000 abandoned mines across the western states, and some pose health and safety hazards, Bishop noted.

He and the other legislators who have sponsored bills, are of the opinion that “the federal government cannot handle the job, or the range of technical, legal, educational and funding related challenges needed to be able to move forward with some measure of success, unless there are some changes.”

The Foundation bill of Rep. Hice provides a way for concerned individuals and organizations, including environmental groups, to raise money to fund the cleanups efforts through the private sector.

Lamborn’s good Samaritan bill limits the liability of those, who in good faith, work onsite to do the cleanup, and Hardy’s mining school bill provides for the training necessary to have mining engineers in the future, in part, to have the technical expertise for the cleanup activities.

Hice said his bill, HR 3844 “Energy and Minerals Reclamation Foundation Establishment Act of 2015,” would rely on 15 individuals, appointed by the Department of the Interior. He explained, “This would be a public and private partnership among people who already have a great amount of expertise and quality education, the true experts, who actually work in the industry.”

Rep. Lamborn said his bill will set up the liability protection that they need in order to go in and cleanup abandoned mine lands. “With some 400,000 abandoned mines in the western states, we have to be cleaning up these mines before a disaster happens.”

He added, a cleanup company would not be held liable to the damage that had already occurred, but only for their own willful or negligent acts, if any.  “Without this kind of relief, no one will touch an abandoned mine, because current legislation states that the minute you start to get involved, you have unlimited liability, and no private company can afford that.”

Congressman Hardy had technical problems which kept him from being a part of the press call, but his office said in a later telephone interview his bill would seek to train more mining engineers. The National Academy of Science reports about 70 percent of the mining industry’s technical leaders will retire in the next 10-15 years, with few on the horizon to replace them.

Only 14 accredited mining school programs exist in the U.S., one of them at UNR.

Hardy’s office said of the over 15,000 EPA employees, not a single one is a mining engineer.

Hardy would like to see reforms in the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to distribute 70 percent of funds made available for applied science technology transfer programs to accredited mining schools. “These research grants are designed to include significant involvement in undergraduate and graduate students to rebuild a strong cohort with the necessary technical expertise to teach future generations and innovate on the front lines of both the private and public sector.”

Another subcommittee hearing all three bills was held Nov. 4 in Washington.