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EPA reimbursements for Gold King Mine spill coming for local governments

No word yet on when businesses might be made whole
Dan Bender, spokesman with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, removes a sign Aug. 15 telling people to stay out of the Animas River after the Gold King Mine spill. Local governments incurred tens of thousands of dollars in expenses related to the spill, and they are seeking reimbursement from the Environmental Protection Agency.

More federal money to cover Gold King Mine spill costs is on the way for La Plata and San Juan counties, though local businesses are still waiting for their reimbursements.

Environmental Protection Agency officials said Wednesday in a meeting with La Plata County and Durango city officials that funds will be awarded to the governmental entities within the next couple of weeks, though the precise amounts to each won’t be apparent until next week.

San Juan and La Plata counties have already received thousands in compensation for costs related to the spill, but thousands are yet to be reimbursed. Bill Murray, Superfund remedial program director, said the awards will address costs already incurred, not anticipated costs.

“The EPA’s intent was to cover pre-award costs,” Murray said. “Any future costs are part of the remedial process to the extent that it’s needed. In some cases, there will be some things we deny, but also an explanation to what is denied and why, and there will be rights for appeal.”

Reimbursement to businesses, such as local rafting companies, which took a hit last summer when the river was temporarily closed to recreation, is a separate matter, which Durango City Councilor Dean Brookie said will be in the spotlight next week on the spill’s one-year anniversary.

“You aren’t doing yourselves any favors not getting (those businesses) paid,” Brookie told EPA officials. “These people have been waiting a year. We’ve got another week until the anniversary; that will be a big date.”

Murray said the claims-reimbursement process is addressed at a high level of government, and awards have not been determined.

“From the perspective here, there is no difference between you (regional EPA) and Washington,” County Commissioner Julie Westendorff told Murray. “This is what our folks were told the Sunday after the spill: ‘Here’s the form; we’ll get you taken care of.’ No one was saying it would be a year.”

In other updates:

EPA officials said in the coming months, crews will be investigating polluted tributaries around the Bonita Peak Mining District and whether they have the potential to support fish habitat.Dan Wall, an environmental risk assessor on the Superfund team, said these studies will be “more specific to the physical habitat” than data collection done in previous years by other entities, including the U.S. Geological Survey and the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

In the months ahead, Superfund site manager Rebecca Thomas said the agency is planning a process called an engineering evaluation cost analysis, which will determine the need for and feasibility of continued operations at the Gladstone water-treatment plant.The plant is a temporary facility intended to operate until fall 2016.

jpace@durangoherald.com

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