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Communities, state agencies await EPA reimbursement from Gold King spill

Conversations with EPA leave some less than optimistic
“The water tastes like iron.” said Eric Parker as he floated down the Animas River Aug. 6, 2015, a day after the Gold King Mine spill. Nine months later, several affected communities await word on whether expenses they incurred from the spill will be reimbursed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Since Aug. 5, state and local entities estimate they’ve spent hundreds of thousands on expenses associated with the Gold King Mine spill. While the Environmental Protection Agency has footed the bill for some expenses, communities don’t know if and how much more they’ll be reimbursed.

The EPA, which triggered the spill that polluted regional watersheds with 3 million gallons of heavy-metal mine water, has reimbursed partial sums to state, tribal and local governments, and pledges to provide more. But on Wednesday, an EPA official told La Plata County commissioners and staff that reimbursement in full isn’t feasible.

And others are facing the same uncertainties.

In the spill’s aftermath, government, health and environment officials scrambled to understand the impacts, coordinate efforts, communicate with the public, seek money from the EPA and plan for the future. These efforts continue almost nine months later. Figures provided by the La Plata County finance department reflect expenditures of $472,714, for personnel, travel, water monitoring and other costs. For that, the county has received $197,792 reimbursement through the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and $6,170 through the state of Colorado, which leaves $258,966 unpaid.

In Silverton and San Juan County, the story is much the same.

The town and county were reimbursed $220,000 for costs associated with the spill from August to October, but are seeking an additional $110,000.

“We haven’t been promised anything at all from that amount,” said San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman. “And that bothers me.”

Bill Gardner, the town administrator, said the costs to pursue a Superfund listing extended through February. The issue of reimbursement was a roadblock for the community in deciding to pursue the listing.

Ultimately, the town and county agreed to pursue the EPA’s hazardous cleanup program.

“Now the EPA is saying we can’t reimburse you for costs, but the costs are directly related to achieving a Superfund status, which everyone – the EPA, La Plata County and Silverton – agreed they wanted,” Gardner said.

“So it is frustrating.”

Kuhlman said in a public meeting with the EPA this week, representatives said the agency could not commit to paying any further reimbursements.

That, Kuhlman said, may have the adverse effect of Silverton and San Juan County not making any commitments themselves.

“We’re the smallest county in the state, and probably the smallest budget, so it was our expectation we would be paid back for this,” he said. “The EPA saturates you with paperwork, and it costs money to have people to process that paperwork, and I don’t recommend we spend anymore unless we get paid back.”

The city of Durango spent $444,032 in the wake of the Gold King spill, which includes revenue the city lost when irrigation was shut down for nine days. The sum also included helping close the Animas River, keeping the public informed and research and meetings on how to address the spill, among other costs, according to city documents. So far, the EPA has agreed to pay the city $2,471, but the city has not received a check.

The city has asked for about $5.7 million in compensation over the next 15 years, which would include the amount spent on the immediate response and ongoing monitoring of river health, said City Manager Ron LeBlanc.

“We just want the city to be made whole,” he said.

The EPA keeps changing the rules about reimbursement requirements and the Oct. 31 deadline seems arbitrary, he said. “The EPA, quite frankly, has not made anything clear to us,” LeBlanc said.

The EPA has encouraged communities to draft cooperative agreements outlining goals and anticipated costs related to the spill. But last week, an EPA official told La Plata County that the federal agency could not accommodate all requests. County staff considered that a reversal of what the EPA had told them.

“The intent is not that this co-op agreement would cover future activities,” EPA Superfund remedial program director Bill Murray told the county on Wednesday. “For Superfund sites, we don’t often have future costs included.” Murray also pointed out that the EPA will incur its own costs with Superfund remediation at the Bonita Peak Mining District.

Calls to legal staff for the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes were not returned, but the Southern Ute tribe said in September that response costs totaled about $200,000, with more expenses expected. The EPA reported it has reimbursed the Southern Ute tribe $116,372 to date.

In line with reactions at the local level, members of Colorado’s congressional delegation released statements saying anything less than full reimbursement is unacceptable. On Friday, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, both Republicans, announced plans to introduce a bill requiring the EPA to fully compensate all affected communities.

“The EPA must be held to the same standard as private companies, and the bill Senators Hatch and (Mike) Enzi and I are working on will do just that,” Gardner said in a prepared statement.

A Congressional staffer told the Herald that the legislation would place the EPA on a schedule for reimbursing claims.

The EPA has made $2 million – of which $465,000 is designated for the state of Colorado – available for water monitoring, yet Murray told La Plata County on Wednesday that the EPA would not cover many of the anticipated costs outlined in the county’s proposed cooperative agreement, including a real-time water monitoring system. The EPA did not respond to a request for clarification.

Gov. John Hickenlooper said he spoke with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on Thursday and she said the EPA intends to stick with its commitments.

“I think the right way to do this is to sit down with the local county officials and municipal officials and some people from the state and some people from the EPA in an aggressive, but thoughtful, way, and make sure that what compensation should be taken care of, that gets paid and we hold the EPA’s feet to the fire and not budge an inch,” Hickenlooper said. “They made certain commitments that I think we should hold them to.”

Herald Staff Writers Peter Marcus, Mary Shinn and Jonathan Romeo contributed to this story.

What has the EPA paid for Gold King?

Environmental Protection Agency officials have paid local, state and tribal entities a total of $881,152 for costs associated with the Gold King Mine spill to date, not including a $2 million grant to support state and tribal long-term monitoring projects.

EPA spokesperson Christie St. Clair provided these reimbursement figures on Friday:

La Plata County:

$197,792 for initial response costs; $9,786 for expenses related to a tour of Superfund sites last fall. It is considering an additional $140,000 for other expenses incurred before Oct. 31, and “expects to reimburse allowable response costs under the existing cooperative agreement.”

San Juan County and the town of Silverton:

$220,667 in “allowable removal response expenses.”

City of Durango:

$2,471 for Superfund tour expenses.

Southern Ute Indian Tribe:

$116,372 for response costs.

New Mexico Environment Department:

$334,064 for response costs. The EPA is considering requests from multiple New Mexico state agencies.

Navajo Nation:

$157,000 for response costs. In addition, the EPA said it spent more than $1.1 million on response for the tribe immediately after the spill.

Also, a $2 million grant was made available to Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe and Navajo Nation for spring water-monitoring efforts in the Animas and San Juan rivers. With $465,000 allocated to the state of Colorado, the San Juan Basin Health Department installed water-monitoring gauges at three river locations in La Plata and San Juan counties.

Jessica Pace

Sep 29, 2016
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Apr 27, 2016
EPA: La Plata County won’t get full reimbursement for Gold King

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