Calling all Good Samaritans

We all know the parable told by Jesus regarding the sojourner who was robbed, pillaged, and left to die along his journey to Jericho.  While some passed him by – because they did not bother to care or care to be bothered – a Samaritan who came upon him, took pity on him, bandaged his wounds, and took him to an inn to take care of him.  The next day the Samaritan gave the inn keeper two silver coins and said “look after him . . . and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”  Jesus asked, “which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers.”  The expert in the law replied “The one who had mercy on him.”  Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Awesome story – whether factual or not – and one that I strive to live up to in my life.  So you ask, what does this have to do with environmental stewardship?  Well, let me tell you the story.  There is a small environmental effort known as the “Good Samaritan Initiative” that – not dissimilar to the parable – is seeking to attend to wounds inflicted upon the environment caused by others and for which society just continues to pass by.  (okay – maybe a bit too melodramatic, but you get the gist).  This particular Good Samaritan initiative is aimed at promoting the restoration of watersheds impacted by abandoned hardimagesCAUND4P7rock mines.  A handful of conservation groups, landowners, and mining interests know well the initiative and the historical efforts behind it.   One of those Little Platoons for conservation, Trout Unlimited, has been an ardent supporter for cleaning up abandoned mines that blight the landscape and degrade our watersheds – an unfortunate legacy for which over a hundred years later we are still reaping the consequences.

Rewind a few years – great story!  In 2005, Chris Wood of Trout Unlimited approached Ben Grumbles and me at U.S. EPA Office of Water and shared with us his desire to cleanup an abandoned hardrock mine in Utah located on the property of Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort.  As the story unfolded, TU planned to use its own money and resources to restore a rare cutthroat trout species and habitat in the American Fork River.  The miners responsible for the mining mess and the ongoing acid mine drainage were long gone.  TU was not asking for taxpayer money, they weren’t asking for government resources, they weren’t even complaining about or bashing the mining industry.  They simply wanted to fix a problem.  However, TU’s concern was potential liability under the federal Clean Water Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (a/k/a CERCLA or Superfund) – they couldn’t  risk being held liable for a potential $50M cleanup.  They wanted assurance from the federal government that TU would not be held liable for an environmental problem for which they did not cause.

This was a win-win situation – good for the environment, good for the trout, good for the taxpayer, and a great demonstration of collaboration by NGOs, landowners, and government.  Even the landowner, Snowbird, who faced liability under CERCLA simply by virtue of owning the contaminated property, wanted to do the right thing and was willing to put the environment’s interest ahead of its own.  They risked liability simply by virtue of raising their head above the water.  And despite the potential liabilities, they were convinced that giving TU access to the site, working with EPA and USDA, and being part of the solution was the right thing to do.  Tiffany & Company was also a strong backer of this project, and should be commended for its efforts to promote corporate social responsibility.  And a special thanks to Patty Limerick, who is an amazing environmental leader and steward, and was always able and willing to lend her support to Good Samaritans – my life is all the richer because my path crossed hers.

This TU project was a no-brainer.   And the Bush EPA wanted to recognize those involved in this awesome project.  Fast forward almost a decade.  And while the American Fork and other Good Samaritan projects have gone forward, the effort is still stymied.  Just a few weeks ago EPA came out with another memo seeking to provide comfort to Good Samaritans and promote these cleanups.  Remarkably, the memo was signed by four top-ranking EPA officials overseeing the waste, water, enforcement, and legal offices.  A noble gesture that should be applauded, and which demonstrates the continued commitment to Good Samaritans and the cause of ridding our landscape and environment from this legacy problem – but a gesture that IMHO will continue to struggle until Congress acts.

I could fill a book on the stunning behind-the-scenes political rancor and battles (including inter- and intra-agency dynamics), but for now, take my word for it, those same political dynamics continue to impede progress.  I was told later by someone deep “in-the-know”, the Good Samaritan legislation proposed by the Bush Administration in 2006 and sponsored by Senator Inhoffe and Congressman Duncan was DOA (copy of my testimony is here) for reasons none other than political.  Nuff said.  Boiled down to its essence – the “trust factor” that continues to cause the impasse for fixing many of our Nation’s largest problems (national debt, immigration etc.), remains an intransigent obstacle to meaningful environmental reforms and progress.

Roger Scruton in his new book, How to Think Seriously About the Plant, discussed previously here, talks about the motivation of the Good Samaritan in the context of his theory of the need for greater oikos or oikophilia – a Greek term that evokes motivations that engender love of  home and sympathy and concern for our neighbors and those things around us.  So, until our national leaders can figure out a path forward on how to govern, we need to applaud and promote the efforts of more Good Samaritans and our love of home.  We need to find the right incentives and tap into those base motivations – exemplifying what it means to be a “neighbor” – that bring out the best in each of us and advances society’s collective interest.