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Politicians lash out at EPA over mine spill reimbursements

Frustrations come after agency’s tightfisted spill response

DENVER – Members of Colorado’s congressional delegation on Thursday expressed frustration with the Environmental Protection Agency after La Plata County officials learned the county may not be compensated fully in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill.

Meanwhile, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, spoke with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on Thursday, who assured him that agency promises will be kept.

“She was still very clear that they haven’t changed what they committed to. ... I think she’s expecting us to hold her feet to the fire,” Hickenlooper said.

County officials heard Wednesday that the EPA won’t cover continued monitoring of spill effects and water quality, a future response plan, continued outreach and public education.

Bill Murray, the regional Superfund remedial program director for EPA, spoke to officials in Durango during a county commissioner study session.

County officials are irate, considering staff spent several months and hundreds of hours drafting a cooperative agreement, which asked the EPA to fund up to $2.4 million over 10 years for spill-related costs and preparation measures.

County officials believe the EPA misrepresented the purpose of the cooperative agreement, having told the county months ago to cast a wide net of demands.

But on Wednesday, the EPA said the cooperative agreement 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.

“This is yet another example of the Washington double standard, and it’s unacceptable, shameful and will be fiercely challenged,” said U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican. “The EPA must keep its promise to the people of Colorado and abide by the standards it expects of others.”

“This is par for the course with the EPA,” added U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez. “I have been skeptical of the EPA’s management of this situation from the onset, and find it offensive to the communities in my district that the EPA, who is directly responsible for this disaster, has so blatantly admitted La Plata County, and others, will not receive full compensation for the damages caused by this spill.”

The frustration crossed political lines, with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, also lashing out at the EPA.

“The EPA left Southwest Colorado last October, but our communities had no choice but to continue working and dealing with the aftermath of the spill,” Bennet said.

Hickenlooper, however, appeared more patient.

“I think it might have been that there was one person in the EPA ... maybe that individual wasn’t looking at the full scope, that’s what I’m hopeful of,” Hickenlooper said of Murray.

Hickenlooper pointed out that the EPA may be able to pull money from another pot to compensate for a more extensive cooperative agreement.

“Let’s see what other resources there are,” Hickenlooper said. “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.”

pmarcus@durangoherld.com

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