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High hopes for Good Sam

Abandoned Utah gold mine

Entrance to an abandoned gold mine near Marysvale, Utah. Photo: Jon G. Fuller/VW Pics /Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A long-sought mine cleanup bill is closer than ever to passing Congress. But it'll have to weather a behind-the-scenes clash between outdoorsmen and environmentalists.

Why it matters: The bill, which would waive liability rules for outside groups to restore abandoned mine lands, has long been stuck in political limbo.

  • "I'm as optimistic as I have been about this bill in 22 years," Trout Unlimited CEO Chris Wood told Axios.

Details: The Good Samaritan Remediation of Abandoned Hardrock Mines Act advanced through Senate Environment and Public Works on a voice vote last week.

  • It would create a 15-project pilot program over seven years to clean up abandoned hardrock mines.
  • The idea is to allow folks who aren't responsible for the original pollution (i.e. a nonprofit or state agency) to improve a few of the thousands of abandoned sites around the country.
  • They'd get to do this without meeting stringent standards and liability rules under the Clean Water Act.

The bill has lots of backers, with 28 bipartisan cosponsors in the Senate, as well as support from industry and a range of conservation groups.

The intrigue: Lead sponsor Martin Heinrich told Axios that the bill "is effectively permit reform."

  • "This creates one more thing that people want in that generalized bucket of permit reform," he said. "So I think we probably have a number of different potential pathways to get this done."
  • There's no House companion yet. Proponents are focused on finding a legislative vehicle or getting it through the Senate by unanimous consent.

Of note: Trout Unlimited and other groups briefed Speaker Mike Johnson about a month ago, Wood said.

  • Johnson's response, according to Wood: "This sounds like common sense to me." (Johnson's office didn't immediately respond to a comment request.)

Yes, but: Versions of this idea have been dogged by fights within the environmental community.

  • Earthjustice, Earthworks and the Center For Biological Diversity sent a letter to EPW last week opposing the bill and what they view as its "unintended consequences" — that it could let mining companies off the hook for legal liabilities.
  • That's because it would, in their view, potentially allow a "Good Samaritan" to reprocess and sell materials found at an abandoned mine.
  • A mining company could get a waiver under section 404 of the Clean Water Act for so-called "dredge and fill" activities "under the guise of cleaning things up," said Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel for Earthworks.
  • House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl Grijalva told Axios last week he has similar concerns.

Zoom in: Sen. Ben Cardin echoed those sentiments during the markup: "As this legislation works its way forward, I think we have to be extremely cautious about waivers to the Superfund rules or the Clean Water Act."

  • Cardin told Axios he would work with the sponsors "to try to find a path forward."

The other side: Wood argued it's a trial run for a handful of "well-regulated" projects: "I think the whole message behind this bill is, let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

What we're watching: The legislation could face jurisdictional challenges in the House, where it would cross the purview of Energy and Commerce, Natural Resources, and Transportation and Infrastructure.

  • House committees sometimes try to make their own mark on a bill before agreeing to tack it onto an omnibus or the NDAA (see: the ADVANCE Act).
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