Something big happened in Washington this week, and maybe, because of it, waters I couldn’t fish as a kid will be cleansed and restored so my own kids will have a chance to enjoy something I couldn’t. On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new “guidance” to make it easier for Good Samaritans to comply with the Clean Water Act when doing voluntary clean-ups of abandoned mine pollution.
It may seem like a small step toward solving a very complex problem, but protecting Good Samaritans might help unleash the power of volunteer groups to undertake the massive task of cleaning up the thousands of toxic abandoned mines that dot the mountainsides of the West. It also might be enough–eventually–to encourage funding sources to help those volunteer groups with these projects and fast-track the solution to one of the most noxious problems facing trout and salmon in America today.
But first, the back story.
I remember seeing my first red creek when I was just a kid–I’d ventured away from my
grandfather as we both fished the cold waters of western Colorado’s Crystal River, and I came upon a small tributary to the river that looked fishy enough.
But something was amiss–the stream bottom was a bright, brilliant red. The smooth, time-worn river rocks were coated with a rusty layer of crust. After a day spent casting to largely cooperative rainbows and brookies in the Crystal’s cold, aptly named waters, I figured I’d do a little exploring–I walked up the middle of the rusty stream, casting as I went.
Of course, I caught nothing. And, I figured it had something to do with the red, crusty coat that blanketed the stream’s rocks and gravel, but I had no idea why.
Later that evening, I told my grandfather of my little side trip, and he was quick to give me an explanation.
“That creek is dead, son,” he said. “It has been as long as I can remember–there’s an old mine up there that pollutes it.”
It was a rude awakening for a fish-crazed boy, and it was tough to understand how one little hole in the mountainside could leave an entire stream “dead.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last red creek I saw–through the course of my childhood and on through my college years spent in south-central Colorado’s high country, I encountered my share of rusty stream beds and barren waters. At their heads lay old mines, abandoned for the better part of a century and still churning out water so tainted with heavy metals that my beloved trout simply could not live in their waters. Upon each encounter, I’d lament lost opportunity and wonder how much longer these long-forgotten mines would continue reminding this angler of their toxic legacy.
Years later, after I had the good fortune to come to work for Trout Unlimited, I learned some of the truths that evaded me as a kid. I learned that, despite the best efforts of a few, those mines would simply continue to drain their acidic, noxious chemicals into the otherwise pure Rocky Mountain water. I learned that abandoned mines have contaminated headwater streams in more than 40 percent of watersheds in the Western United States, and some of the very laws that exist to protect clean water have acted as barriers to abandoned mine cleanups. In some cases, simply turning over a shovelful of dirt was enough to put the toxic liability of the mine on the backs of the folks who desperately wanted to clean it up, to right a wrong … to make waters clean and whole … and fishy … again.
TU has been working for several years to remove legal barriers to abandoned mine cleanups. In 2007, we helped find a solution to liability under the “Superfund” law, which enabled us to clean up abandoned mine pollution in Utah’s American Fork drainage. TU and our partners have completed other mine cleanups in places like Mores Creek in Idaho, Kerber Creek in Colorado, and the Clark Fork basin in Montana. These projects have returned trout to where they belong, and demonstrated the impact that dedicated Good Samaritans can have on mine cleanups.
Like I said, something big happened in D.C. this week. The EPA clarified the affect of the Clean Water Act on Good Samaritans in a way that could relieve some liability concerns, and clear the way for more projects that clean up abandoned mines and make waters fishable again.
I can’t wait to get started on the clean-up. I know a little creek in western Colorado that might just be the perfect place to start.