WASHINGTON, D.C. – La Plata County commissioners pushed the Environmental Protection Agency for answers on issues related to the Gold King Mine spill, including long-term monitoring of the Animas River watershed, during a meeting here this week.
While skeptical of the EPA officials’ lack of specifics on such things as reimbursements to downstream entities for monitoring efforts, the commissioners said the agency seemed receptive to their concerns.
“To me, the meeting was a commitment to engagement, which might be an adequate, realistic expectation,” said Commissioner Julie Westendorff. “I do think we were heard, and I think based on the comments that they shared, I think they were sincere in thanking us for coming and telling them what it looks like on the ground.”
The commissioners were in town to attend the National Association of Counties legislative conference, but Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said that a priority during the visit was to press the EPA about its commitment to long-term monitoring.
“The timing of our trip is not just happenstance,” Lachelt said. “We really wanted to have this meeting with the EPA to make sure that they help get all of these programs in place in time. They told us that they’ve spent $8 million so far responding to the spill, so that includes the $2 million treatment plant (for Cement Creek), and probably a lot of personnel costs and water testing.”
A major focus of their hour-long meeting was to discuss spring runoff and the possibility of heavy metal pollutants, laced with river sediment, being disturbed from the Animas riverbed. The EPA previously stated its plans to monitor before, during and after the spring runoff because of the Aug. 5 spill that sent 3 million gallons of mining heavy-metal-laden sludge into the river.
“La Plata County doesn’t have the expertise to come up with a monitoring plan or response plan, and so we need to get help from the state and from the EPA to help us do this,” Westendorff said.
The commissioners were particularly critical of the EPA for previously offering to provide only $2 million to entities downstream of the spill for long-term monitoring efforts. The agency officials said they would look into expanding that financial commitment, and the commissioners said they would continue to push for more money.
“To use a Western metaphor – this is not our first rodeo,” Lachelt said. “We’re not just going to take their word for it. We’re going to hold their feet to the fire, and today was partly an effort to hold their feet to the fire, remind them of our requests, remind them of their promises, and that we’re going to call them next week.”
The commissioners said they plan to follow up with the EPA weekly once they return to La Plata County.
The commissioners also noted that the spill impacted multiple states, which are part of three EPA regions. The EPA has 10 regional offices across the country.
Lachelt said coordination between the EPA regions was severely lacking, especially in response to the spill. She said the agency needs to establish a more direct contact to respond to spill-related issues across the regions.
“We think it makes a lot of sense for the EPA to establish one point of contact among the three EPA regions,” Lachelt said. “So that way we’re all communicating with the same person instead of through EPA Region 6 and 8 and 9.”
Commissioner Brad Blake agreed but added that the EPA officials didn’t seem particularly keen about pursuing the idea.
“I didn’t get the sense that they were that excited about that conversation today,” Blake said.
While the EPA didn’t offer the commissioners much in the way of long-term, agency-led solutions, they agreed that the meeting was a productive step toward establishing a working relationship with the agency. And the commissioners are willing to branch out to push for more meaningful responses.
“At least they know that we’re here, we’re interested, and, by the way, we’re going to be talking with all of our congressional delegation about it,” Blake said. “And I think that helps. I think that kind of makes their ears stand up and realize that we’re going to be talking with everybody.”
The commissioners met with Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., on Tuesday morning, and also met separately with Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, on Wednesday to discuss the long-term response to the spill.
firstname.lastname@example.org Edward Graham is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.