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EPA chief tours Gold King Mine; Colorado officials field questions

Hickenlooper, Bennet, Gardner and Tipton host town hall

Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt’s visit to the Superfund site north of Silverton on Friday has encouraged state and local officials, who say they were promised it would be a top priority for cleanup.

Pruitt visited the Gold King Mine, about 10 miles north of Silverton, nearly two years after an EPA-contracted crew accidentally released 3 million gallons of mine wastewater, polluting the Animas and San Juan rivers.

Pruitt was joined by Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, Rep. Scott Tipton, La Plata County Commissioner Brad Blake and Durango City Councilors Dean Brookie and Dick White, among others.

EPA declined The Durango Herald’s requests to join the tour.

Brookie told the Herald afterward that Pruitt seemed to have a good understanding of the reality and expanse of the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund area, which spans 48 mining-related sites in the Animas watershed.

Brookie said Pruitt repeatedly expressed “total commitment” to continue to fund the cleanup and reassured the group that the area is atop his list of priorities.

“It seemed they were here to express their desire to do this comprehensively and expeditiously,” Brookie said. “And I don’t think it was a token visit for political purposes of any kind.”

In a news release, Pruitt said, “EPA should be held to the same standard as those we regulate. The previous administration failed those who counted on them to protect the environment.”

Pruitt has vowed to re-evaluate 73 claims totaling $1.2 billion in rejected damage compensation.

“A new review is paramount to ensure that those who have, in fact, suffered losses have a fair opportunity to have their claims heard,” he said.

A town hall held in Durango after the tour, which was supposed to be centered on the Superfund site and Gold King Mine, quickly veered off track, with most questions aimed at Gardner on a range of issues, including health care, climate change and immigration.

Dozens of protesters gathered outside the venue, some to challenge Pruitt’s policies and others to goad Gardner for not holding an in-person town hall meeting for 493 days.

Gardner said Pruitt believed the EPA “walked away” from its responsibility in the Gold King Mine spill and that it is a priority that the agency “make it right.”

Since the spill, the EPA has spent more than $29 million in its response and reimbursed more than $3.5 million to local, state and tribal governments for costs incurred from the release.

The agency has also done numerous remediation projects throughout the watershed, including stabilizing the Gold King Mine portal, identifying and completing short-term projects and conducting water testing and evaluations of mine workings.

The site was declared a Superfund in fall 2016, just a year after the spill.

Pruitt did not attend the town hall meeting.

“He should have been here,” Gardner said.

The EPA now faces a nearly 30 percent budget cut as the Trump administration looks to make good on its promise to drastically reduce the agency’s funding. Still, Pruitt told Colorado’s top politicians he believes Bonita Peak will have the necessary funds to continue a cleanup.

“He said the Superfund budget is still one of his highest priorities, and he’s going to fight for it,” Hickenlooper told the audience. “I don’t think you can ask for much more.”

Pruitt has said he is creating a list of 10 Superfund sites to be prioritized. Yet in an interview with The Denver Post, Pruitt said he wasn’t sure if Gold King and the sites included in Bonita Peak were among that list.

“I don’t know yet (if the Gold King and surrounding mines will be on that list),” he said. “We are evaluating all of the sites right now. Either way, it is going to be a priority.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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