Content originally published by The Durango Herald on December 14th, 2015
The first-ever congressional hearing inside a mine was held Monday, offering a dramatic image of the impact the Gold King Mine spill has had on policy talks.
The Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held its field hearing inside the Edgar Mine in Idaho Springs, where the panel discussed legislation aimed at training and recruiting engineers to work on mining reclamation efforts.
“This is weird,” said U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, who made his remarks while wearing a hard hat and looking up at rock formations inside the mine, which is used for training by the Colorado School of Mines.
Discussions around mining reform gained momentum after the August Gold King Mine spill, in which an estimated 3 million gallons of old mining sludge poured into the Animas River, turning it a mustard-yellow. The river tested for initial spikes in heavy metals.
The Environmental Protection Agency admitted fault, including failing to drill into the mine to determine water pressure ahead of reclamation efforts.
Some of the focus has been placed on whether federal agencies have enough engineers and other mining experts on staff to consult on reclamation projects. Out of that discussion came the legislation that would direct funding to mining schools to train a talent pool.
“The generation coming up wants to make a difference. Right now, the mining industry is not perceived as a way to do that,” said Leigh Freeman, a mining consultant who testified Monday inside the mine in support of the legislation.
With at least 23,000 inactive mines identified in Colorado alone, the restoration issue has left Congress searching for answers.
Several good Samaritan proposals remain on the table – including one from U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez – in which private entities would be empowered to restore inactive mines by limiting their risk of liability.
Other more contentious legislative proposals include assessing fees and royalties on mining activities to establish a fund for restoration. The GOP is opposed to this approach.
Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, said the discussion needs to be narrow in scope, which is what his hope is with a separate good Samaritan bill he introduced as part of a larger package of mining reforms.
“If you try to tackle everything globally, there’s just too many moving parts, and the legislation does not end up going anywhere,” he said.