Good Samaritan Bills Elusive Despite Gold King Mine Spill

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By Tripp Baltz

Oct. 7 — Good Samaritan legislation that would relieve those who clean up abandoned mines of third-party liability has been controversial despite heightened attention to the problem after the 2015 Gold King Mine spill, a Colorado mining official said Oct. 7.

“One of the reasons it’s been controversial is some of the constituents say, ‘We don’t want them to clean up a site if they don’t clean it up to Clean Water Act standards,’” Ginny Brannon, director of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, said during a panel session at the fall conference of the American Bar Association’s Section of Environment, Energy and Resources in Denver. “Most of these sites cannot be cleaned up to Clean Water Act standards.”

Brannon said Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet (D) and Cory Gardner (R) have joined with Rep. Scott Tipton (R) on good Samaritan legislation. “Gold King gave us a teachable moment, and it’s a time of heightened public awareness like we’ve never had around abandoned mines,” Brannon said.

But, she said, “In Washington, D.C., right now there is a graveyard of good Samaritan bills. I don’t know whether we’ll see a successful bill or not.”

EPA workers triggered the release of 3 million gallons of mining waste and sediment into the Animas River watershed while clearing debris from the entrance of the Gold King Mine in a high-altitude area of southwest Colorado on Aug. 5, 2015. A toxic plume of heavy metals flowed through three states and Native American lands before pouring into the Colorado River at Lake Powell.

Oversight, Permitting Needed

Another reason the concept of good Samaritan cleanups is controversial, Brannon said, is “we don’t want a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re doing running around with good intentions making a much bigger mess. So we’re going to have to have oversight, we’re going to have to have permitting.”

Brannon spoke as a member of a panel on natural resource damages. She was joined by Brian D. Israel of Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C., who is lead counsel to BP in relation to the Deepwater Horizon natural resources damage claims and one of the trial attorneys at the Deepwater Horizon Clean Water Act penalty trial.

Israel said the goal of natural resources damages is not punishment but restoration. The aim is to restore the natural environment to “baseline, the condition it would have been in had the spill not occurred, not Garden of Eden or pristine condition.”

In the case of Deepwater Horizon, within one year of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill BP committed to $1 billion of early restoration, he said. “The idea was, let’s go out and do projects now, before the science is complete.” Meanwhile the company and federal and state agencies were gathering environmental data about the impacts on marine life, birds, other wildlife and shoreline habitat in the Gulf of Mexico, he said.

In April 2016 the BP settlement was formerly entered by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tripp Baltz in Denver at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

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