Even Trump can agree that polluters and not taxpayers should pay to clean up our mines

A river turns brilliant orange. Maybe that’s what it takes to get folks’ attention.

Colorado’s Animas River became a national media sensation when a major spill released 3 million gallons of mine waste into its waters, impacting drinking water and irrigation not only in Colorado, but also downstream in New Mexico and Utah.

The shocking visual images did not come out of thin air. They came from the notorious Gold King Mine. In September 2016, Gold King and 47 other nearby mine sites, were designated a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency.  While the owners of these sites may be forced to pay some of the cleanup costs, it’s the American taxpayer that is ultimately on the hook.

There is a simple solution to help ensure that this doesn’t happen again.  The federal government can require mining companies post an adequate financial guarantee to cover cleanup costs of hazardous pollution releases that might occur.  This “polluter pays” principle ensures that when mining companies profit from mineral development they cover all of their costs, including the cost of cleaning up their mess.

On Dec. 1, the EPA issued draft rules under the federal Superfund law that will, if approved, require mining companies to take responsibility for the cost of cleaning up a site that they contaminate, including a mandate to post a bond or other financial assurances sufficient to cover cleanup should things go wrong. These draft rules are now open for public comment through March 13.

Unlike other Obama administration rules, the Trump EPA cannot simply walk away from these rules because, after years of foot dragging, the agency is under court order to issue final rules by Dec. 1 of this year. 

Importantly, the final EPA rules must not allow “corporate guarantees,” which are no guarantee at all. These are mere company promises that cannot be readily enforced when they’re needed most. Mineral prices are volatile and markets change rapidly. As we have seen so recently with the coal industry, companies that seem like financial juggernauts can quickly fall into bankruptcy, unable to honor their cleanup promises unless adequate security has been set aside in advance.

American taxpayers are already burdened with an estimated $20-$54 billion in clean-up costs for the backlog of hardrock mines sites that require clean-up.  So, join me in urging the Trump administration to support, without delay, strong financial assurance rules for the hardrock mining industry.

Environmental protection under the new administration may face a bumpy road, but making polluters pay to clean up their own messes ought not be partisan or controversial.  We need to be sure that the money is there to clean up abandoned sites and we need to be sure that mining companies take responsibility for the sites they are developing now and in the future.  Following through on strong mine cleanup financial assurance rules will go a long way toward achieving these important goals.

Mark Squillace is Professor of Law at University of Colorado Law School.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.