Inhofe: Cleanup of Orphan Mines Act

EPAGoldKingMineSpill3U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, delivered the following opening statement today at the legislative hearing entitled, Economic Opportunities from Land Cleanup Programs and a Legislative Hearing on S. 1479, Brownfields Utilization, Investment, and Local Development Act of 2015, S. 2446, Improving Coal Combustion Residuals Regulation Act of 2016 and Discussion Draft of Good Samaritan Cleanup of Orphan Mines Act of 2016.

As prepared for delivery:

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK)

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK)

In my years as Chairman and Ranking Member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, I have worked to promote common-sense solutions to clean up the environment while also promoting economic development and jobs in our states and local communities.  The topic of today’s hearing will examine three pieces of bipartisan legislation that fit this description and address long-standing priorities of mine.

The first bill on the agenda is S. 1479, the Brownfields Utilization, Investment, and Local Development Act of 2015, also known as the BUILD Act.  The original Brownfields law was enacted in 2002 to address liability concerns and to provide grant money to clean up abandoned and contaminated properties.

The Brownfields program is a conservative program.  EPA estimates that for every $1 of federal grant money awarded, almost $18 in additional funding is leveraged from local and private sources.  This reauthorization draws from our experience and will make an already successful Brownfields program even better for small, rural communities and urban areas alike.  An earlier version passed out of the Committee in the 113th Congress on a voice vote.  This bill was introduced last summer by Senator Markey and myself, along with Ranking Member Boxer and Senators Rounds, Crapo, and Booker as original co-sponsors.  You cannot get more bipartisan than that.  Although the BUILD Act was recently added by voice vote as an amendment to the Senate energy bill, it is unclear what will happen with that legislation, so I think it is important that we keep this moving as stand-alone legislation.

EPAGoldKingMineSpill1The second bill is a discussion draft of Good Samaritan legislation released in January by Senator Gardner and Senator Bennet from Colorado. There are hundreds of thousands of abandoned mine sites across the country, many of which date back to the 1800s.  Local watershed groups and other Good Samaritans want to clean up these sites but are afraid of taking on Superfund and Clean Water Act liability.

It is interesting that modern environmental laws are hindering the restoration of these waterways.  This was certainly never the intent.  Good Samaritan legislation is not a roll-back of these laws or a violation of the polluter pays principal, as some suggest.  Opponents of Good Sam legislation also argue that EPA simply needs more money to do these cleanups.  As the recent blowout at the Gold King mine caused by EPA shows, that is not the answer. 

EPAGoldKingMineSpill2In 2006, when I was the Chairman, the EPW Committee held an oversight hearing on this problem and approved a bill based in part on bipartisan legislation by Senators Allard and Salazar that would have addressed liability concerns through state Good Samaritan permitting programs.  I am encouraged that the current Senators from Colorado are trying to find common ground.  As a veteran of the earlier efforts, I think it is important that we not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

Good Samaritan legislation should encourage cleanups in a responsible way but not impose unnecessary burdens that would deter anyone from stepping forward.  Good Samaritans are like brownfields redevelopers. They did not cause the environmental problems they are trying to address, so it is appropriate to protect them from environmental liability when they are trying to improve the environment and create economic opportunity. 

CoalPlantThe third and final bill on the agenda is S. 2446, the Improving Coal Combustion Residuals Regulation Act of 2016, which is sponsored by Senators Hoeven and Manchin.  EPA has extensively studied the safety of coal ash, which is a critical ingredient in concrete used for roads and bridges. In a final rule issued in December 2014, EPA correctly determined that coal ash should be regulated as a nonhazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

However, as the EPW Committee heard at a June 2015 oversight hearing, EPA has limited authority under RCRA and there are significant concerns by states and regulated entities with how that rule would be implemented. This bill would amend RCRA to authorize states to establish permitting programs for the disposal of coal ash, subject to EPA approval and oversight.  The cooperative federalism approach in this legislation is how most of our environmental programs operate and addresses the main concern raised by the Administration about earlier legislation that passed the House. 

Sen. Jim Inhofe

Sen. Jim Inhofe

This hearing was originally scheduled for the end of January, but we had to postpone it due to the blizzard. I appreciate our panel of witnesses for their patience in rescheduling this hearing and for making themselves available today.

Edit Note: Witnesses include Frank Holleman, senior attorney for Southern Environmental Law Center; Patrick Kirby, director, Northern West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center; Jennifer Krille, executive director of Earthworks; Chip Merriam, vice president of Legislative, Regulatory, & Compliance for Orlando Utilities Commission (on behalf of the American Public Power Association); and Steve Moyer, vice president for government affairs for Trout Unlimited.