SILVERTON, CO — Two years after the Las Animas River was turned a bright yellow from the Gold King Mine spill, Colorado politicians remain confident the federal Environmental Protection Agency will eventually address the contamination.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt toured the mine Friday accompanied by Colorado’s U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, Gov. John Hickenlooper and 3rd Congressional District Rep. Scott Tipton.
“Pruitt showed today that he is committed to making this a priority,” said Gardner, a Republican. “He said the EPA walked away from this effort and that he will make it right.”
Colorado’s senior senator, Democrat Bennet, echoed Gardner’s desire to see the Gold King Mine be a top EPA priority.
“What we can’t allow to happen is to have a Superfund designation but no money to do something about it,” Bennet said, responding to concerns over slashing the EPA’s cleanup program’s budget by 25 percent. “Pruitt was very clear today that he understands that and is going to make sure the proper funds are available.”
Pruitt, who did not attend a town hall in Durango after the mine tour, called out former President Barack Obama’s administration for failing “those who counted on them to protect the environment.”
The 2015 spill, an accident caused by EPA contractors working in the mine, sent 3 million gallons of contaminated acid mine waste into the Las Animas River and Cement Creek, ultimately flowing into the San Juan River through Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
“When I was appointed EPA administrator by President (Donald) Trump, I committed to review the Gold King Mine decision made by the previous administration,” Pruitt said. “A new review is paramount to ensure that those who have, in fact, suffered losses have a fair opportunity to have their claims heard.”
In January, the previous EPA administration denied 79 claims filed by farmers, ranchers, homeowners, businesses, employees, state and local governments, as well as other individuals seeking damages.
On March 16, the new EPA administration paid more than $90,000 in additional reimbursements to five entities in Colorado and Utah for costs incurred responding to the Aug. 5, 2015, release.
Some claimants have filed legal challenges to the EPA’s denial of their claims.
The state of Utah filed an administrative claim in February, seeking $1.9 billion. On Wednesday, Utah sued the mine owners and EPA contractors for cleanup compensation and unspecified damages.
The state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, whose administrative claims were denied, have filed motions to add their claims to the pre-existing Gold King Mine litigation in the District of New Mexico.
The EPA has spent more than $29 million responding to the disaster, including reimbursements for response costs accrued by state, local and tribal governments, providing continued water treatment and monitoring, listing the Bonita Peak Mining District as a priority Superfund site, and researching how contaminants move through river systems.
In all, 144 claims are pending. The EPA has until the end of December to act on the claims being reconsidered.
Durango Mayor Dick White applauded Pruitt for recognizing the Gold King Mine spill cleanup as an environmental priority and vowing to reconsider 79 claimants whose requests were rejected under his predecessor, Gina McCarthy.
“The cleanup is a long process. It won’t be done tomorrow. But like the administrator said today during our tour, it is a priority,” White said.
La Plata County Commissioner Brad Blake said the first year after the spill was “very rough” because of inaction by the EPA.
After the Gold King mine and 48 other mining-related sites in the area were designated as a Superfund site in September 2016, though, things started to change, Blake said.
Now, the EPA holds monthly meetings with stakeholders, including officials from San Juan and La Plata counties, the cities within the counties and Native American tribes. The EPA also has installed a monitor well in the area of the Sunnyside Mine, which is believed to have been the source of the contaminates that spilled into the Gold King Mine.
“I’ve been really impressed . the team working out of Denver has been giving us regular updates on their understanding of where the water is coming from and where it is going,” White said. “As a scientist, I have a lot of confidence in the EPA staff up in Denver who have been working on this.”
Environmental activists had less faith that Pruitt would keep his promises.
Conservation Colorado, an environmental advocacy group, distrusts Pruitt’s claims.
“Scott Pruitt is the antithesis of our Colorado values of protecting our land, air, and water for future generations,” said Jessica Good, Conservation Colorado spokeswoman. “We see through his unconvincing attempt to be perceived as a champion for environmental cleanups.”
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