Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s visit to the Superfund site north of Silverton has drawn the ire from some locally elected officials because of the closed-door nature of the tour.
On Wednesday, reports surfaced that Pruitt is slated to visit the recently declared Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site on Friday, but officials involved in organizing the tour have been tight-lipped about who is attending.
EPA officials Cynthia Peterson and Amy Graham declined to share any information on the specifics of the tour, and would not say if Pruitt intends to meet with local officials in Silverton and Durango.
Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet confirmed they will be joining the EPA trip up to Silverton. Sen. Cory Gardner did not respond to the Herald, but told The Denver Post he would be alongside Pruitt. And House Rep. Scott Tipton did not respond to requests for comment.
Local officials in Durango and Silverton expressed anger Wednesday that they have been left in the dark about Pruitt’s visit the high-profile Superfund site.
Nearly two years ago, an EPA-contract crew caused a blowout at the Gold King Mine, which sent 3 million gallons of mine wastewater down the Animas and San Juan rivers. The spill eventually led to a watershed-wide cleanup of 48-mining related sites around the highly mined mountains that surround Silverton.
La Plata County spokeswoman Megan Graham confirmed Wednesday that Republican County Commissioner Brad Blake is the only representative with the county invited on the tour.
But it’s unclear who, if any, other locally elected officials are joining Pruitt’s visit. Representatives with the city of Durango, the town of Silverton and San Juan County all said they have not been informed of the tour’s agenda.
“I’m really upset about the lack of transparency,” La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said. “This is an issue that affects every single person in the Four Corners. This is not a partisan issue.”
According to Lachelt, EPA Superfund project manager Rebecca Thomas and Tipton’s spokeswoman, Darlene Marcus, informed county commissioners July 26 that Pruitt was confirmed to visit Southwest Colorado this week.
At that time, Lachelt said commissioners were told Pruitt and EPA staff would meet with locally elected officials.
However, Lachelt said that soon changed: The meeting in Durango was canceled and only Blake was invited to join Pruitt on his tour.
“I’m extremely frustrated we won’t have an opportunity to talk to the EPA administrator and let him know how important the Bonita Peak Superfund site is,” Lachelt said. “We’re super concerned about the proposed cuts, not just for Superfund, but for other EPA programs.”
But Blake, reached late Wednesday, said he also hasn’t been given a time or place of the meeting.
“I’m a little confused on if I’m even still invited,” Blake said.
Durango City Councilor Dick White also expressed frustration that the city of Durango has not been involved in the tour.
“When we were approached by EPA about a possible Superfund designation, the key element was engaging all constituents, White said. “The visit by (Pruitt) does not seem to be in that spirit.”
San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman, too, said if Pruitt does not meet with locals on the ground, it would send a bad message for future relations. One of the main demands the town of Silverton had before entering the Superfund process was a guarantee the community would have a seat at the table.
“I don’t think he’s very interested in our opinion,” Kuhlman said of the prospect that Pruitt would snub locals. “We certainly want someone to be up there to represent San Juan County. That’d only be fair.”
Silverton interim Town Administrator Michelle Hamilton said the town was recently notified of Pruitt’s visit, but she said no times have been set to meet with the town or county, and the process as a whole has been “lacking in information.”
“We are keeping our morning open and hopefully we can nail down a time,” Hamilton said. “I’m pretty positive that all of us are not going to stand for that. We’d really like to meet with him.”
San Juan County Administrator Willy Tookey reiterated Hamilton’s comment.
“At this point I have no time, no agenda, no anything,” Tookey said. “I guess we’re just going to wait and see what happens.”
San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenheir, the appointed person to represent the county on all Superfund matters, said Wednesday he still had no information on Pruitt’s visit.
In a statement sent Wednesday to the Herald, Sen. Michael Bennet urged Pruitt to meet with communities that have lasting consequences of the Gold King Mine spill and work with them to identify solutions.
“Our office is urging the EPA to be inclusive and meet with as many community leaders as possible during his visit,” Bennet said. “We have worked for two years with the community to identify solutions, such as the Bonita Peak Superfund designation, and ensure communities and individuals are made whole in the wake of the spill. We hope Administrator Pruitt will coordinate with us to ensure these important local voices are heard during his visit here.”