Environmental Protection Agency officials told dismayed La Plata County commissioners on Wednesday not to expect compensation for some Gold King Mine spill costs.
For seven months, county staff has sunk several hundred hours into drafting a cooperative agreement asking the EPA to fund up to $2.4 million over 10 years for spill-related costs and preparation measures for future emergencies.
Others, including tribal communities and the state of New Mexico, have drafted similar documents asking for a long-term river monitoring system.
But EPA officials said Wednesday the cooperative agreement program is not designed to cover anticipated expenses. Furthermore, the federal agency ended its emergency response activities on Oct. 31, and is using that date as a reimbursement cutoff for response costs. And, the agency is considering its own future costs to evaluate and clean the mining district that has been recommended for Superfund status.
“The intent is not that this co-op agreement would cover future activities,” Superfund remedial program director Bill Murray said. “For Superfund sites, we don’t often have future costs included. The program is not designed to provide for a lot of what is in there.”
On Aug. 5, the EPA accidentally caused a spill at the inactive Gold King Mine north of Silverton, dumping 3 million gallons of heavy-metal contaminated mine water into regional watersheds. A recommendation to designate the mine along with nearly 50 other sites in the region for Superfund listing was added earlier this month to the Federal Register. While the emergency response period ended last fall, the costs have not been recouped.
The cooperative agreement outlines several tasks or funding requests. The EPA reimbursed the county for one task – $9,700 for a tour of regional Superfund sites – and is evaluating another – costs incurred from Aug. 6 through Dec. 31, 2015, that total $249,224. Earlier this year, the county received about $200,000 from the EPA for costs incurred immediately after the spill.
But Murray said the EPA won’t cover continued monitoring of spill effects and water quality, a future response plan, continued outreach and public education.
County staff said the EPA is contradicting itself, having told the county months ago to cast a wide net of demands in the cooperative agreement.
“We were encouraged to take a certain approach,” County Attorney Sheryl Rogers said. “Parties knew that some of these funds were not going to be allowed under the agreement, yet no one told us, and we continue to dedicate staff time to a document that was done on arrival.”
“What’s the mechanism for recovering actual damages that our community, the city of Durango, the Southern Utes, San Juan County and Silverton incurred, that aren’t out-of-pocket? That were damages to our reputation, for lack of a better word?” Commissioner Julie Westendorff asked. “We have a fishing, rafting and tourism industry that people come here for. We took a big hit on it. Oct. 31 wasn’t the last day we had costs – that’s when your (the EPA’s) response was over.”
Westendorff said Gold King distracted officials from important county business, such as public education on the mill levy proposal for roads and bridges, which failed at the polls last November.
To date, in addition to the $9,700 for the Superfund site tour, the county has received about $197,000 for initial response costs. It has not collected an additional $249,000 officials say it is owed. The county may receive more as the EPA evaluates the request but will look to other entities, like the San Juan Basin Health Department, to fulfill other needs, including a water-monitoring system.
“All I can say is, I’m truly sorry. I understand, but there are some limits to what we can do,” Murray said. “As a result of Gold King, we (the EPA) have a new, expensive process before we can put a shovel in the ground at a site. That level of additional caution is costing us time and money. In 35 years of Superfund experience, that is one terrible mistake. All the good work we’ve done, that doesn’t matter when you’ve made one mistake.”
Commissioner Brad Blake pointed out the EPA is using taxpayer money, while the county is handling Gold King on the local taxpayer’s dime as well.
“Gina (McCarthy) said, ‘You will be made whole,’” Blake said. “We’re not seeing that. The frustration level is high, and in fairness, the EPA is spending taxpayers’ money to do that job. We’re spending our taxpayers’ money doing that job. That’s not right.”
Commissioner Gwen Lachelt was absent from Wednesday’s meeting.
The county requested a letter from the EPA summarizing what the federal agency will and won’t pay. The EPA agreed to provide that but did not say when it would be available.