That House bill will cost you $65 million

Lawmaker tweaks measure to reduce fines on mines

DENVER – A Southwest Colorado lawmaker won approval from his fellow Republicans on Thursday to remove fines on mining companies for minor violations.

Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, started the year with a desire to reduce fines on all types of businesses.

But his House Bill 1119 came back with a shocking $65 million price tag, most of which came from late fines on taxes the state would not have been able to collect. So Coram scaled down his ambitions and limited the bill’s effect to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

His rewritten bill cleared its first hurdle Thursday in the House Business and Economic Development Committee, passing on a 7-5 party-line vote. Most of the debate focused on state oversight of mining companies.

Coram owns four uranium mines in Western Colorado.

“We all want to be good stewards of the land. But we don’t want to have an undue pressure coming from an agency that can levy a fine simply because they have the right to do so,” Coram said.

His bill would give businesses a right to fix mistakes flagged by state regulators before the state can levy a fine.

But the idea did not sit well with Joe Schieffelin, manager of solid and hazardous waste program at CDPHE.

Inspectors at his agency already waive fines for minor violations, and only 5 percent of companies that are inspected get fines, Schieffelin said.

The state government does not have enough inspectors to visit every business on a regular basis, so it relies on the deterrent effect of fines, he said.

“Knowing ahead of time that violators will not pay a fine destroys the deterrent effect,” Schieffelin said.

Jeff Parsons of the Western Mining Action Project argued that Coram’s bill could make things worse for businesses. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows the state to enforce many rules, but if the Legislature slackened the law, the EPA might take over the task and impose heavy-handed punishments, Parsons said.

Coram emphasized that his focus is on minor fines such as paperwork violations. State law does not define what constitutes a “minor” violation, so Coram’s bill defines it as an error that does not threaten public health or safety.

The bill’s next stop is the House Finance Committee.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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