EPA Unveils Office Of Mountains, Deserts And Plains To Clean Up West’s Mining ‘Albatross’
Environmental Protection Agency’s ongoing efforts to collaborate with local communities, increase agency transparency, and speed up cleanup at challenging sites received a boost this week with the announcement of a new office based in Colorado focused on hardrock mining site rehabilitation.
EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Doug Benevento unveiled the new Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains on Wednesday, saying that “uniquely western work needs an integrated western presence.”
“The Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains will ensure we are making progress cleaning up mining sites across the West, promote Good Samaritan projects, identify innovative cleanup technologies, and oversee the cleanup of abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation,” said Benevento.
“We’re moving decision-making out of D.C. and into the West for issues that are uniquely important to the West,” Benevento continued. “Mining supports technology and our way of life. Historic mining practices have had negative environmental impacts, and that’s what we’re looking to address.”
The office would provide “oversight, guidance, and technical assistance that will be closer to communities,” Benevento added.
Benevento formally announced the launch of the office in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the Western Museum of Mining and Industry. The office headquarters will be located in Lakewood, Colo., with a small staff—fewer than ten employees—and will not require any relocations, Benevento said.
The new office will report directly to the Assistant Administrator for Land and Emergency Management. at the Federal Center in Lakewood.
EPA officials cited projects like the Bonita Peak Mining District in Colorado and the Silver Bow Creek Superfund site in Montana as driving the need for an office focused solely on hardrock mining cleanup that would be responsive and responsible to the communities located near these cleanup sites. Though the office will be located near EPA Region 8 headquarters in Denver, it will cover mining sites throughout EPA Regions 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10.
“It was almost about a year ago that I toured a former mining site here in Colorado,” said Region 8 Administrator Greg Sopkin, “which provides an excellent example of how, by working together, industry, communities, and state and federal agencies are addressing legacy mining issues.” Sopkin referred to the California Gulch Superfund site near Leadville, Colo.
The 18-square-mile district includes the City of Leadville, a portion of the historic mining district, and sections of the nearby Arkansas River. EPA worked with state and local officials to coordinate the decades-long cleanup, leading to a Colorado Parks and Wildlife gold waters designation in 2014, with 192 businesses and more than 1,200 employees by 2018 generating $110 million in revenues, Sopkin said.
Benevento and Sopkin were joined by U.S. Reps. Doug Lamborn (R) and Dan Newhouse (R), Oklahoma Secretary of Energy & Environment Ken Wagner at the press conference, while Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Director Misael Cabrera and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality Jess Byrne joined remotely.
But praise for EPA’s newest office, pushed by Administrator Andrew Wheeler who declared that the agency’s “days of a one-size-fits-all approach to environmental remediation are over,” extended past traditional elected and appointed officials. For local communities hardest hit by, for example, historic uranium mining, the office will begin to address ongoing community healthy and legacy environmental degradation.
“The Navajo people have suffered, and continue to suffer, enormous adverse impacts to their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health as a result of the federal government’s past investment in uranium extraction from the Navajo Nation,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, “as well as catastrophic environmental impacts from un-remediated soil contamination and surface water and ground water contamination.”
“Consequently, we support and applaud USEPA’s establishment of a new office within the Office of Land and Emergency Management whose primary focus will be to expediate the clean-up of abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation,” Nez added.
Libby Szabo, a Jefferson County, Colorado Commissioner whose district includes the new EPA MDP office headquarters, said the location demonstrated the EPA’s commitment to serve most impacted communities.
“Government is at its best when it is in the midst of the people it serves. Lakewood, Colorado is a perfect fit for the new Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains. The EPA will be able to continue its mission of accountability, streamlining services and coordination with local partners in its clean-up efforts. I welcome this new effort to get these government offices out of Washington, D.C. and into the areas they serve,” said Szabo.
Non-governmental organizations whose remediation efforts would receive a significant increase in support by focusing on Good Samaritan cleanups touted the announcement as well.
“Trout Unlimited has been working to clean-up abandoned hard rock mines to improve coldwater habitat and water quality for almost two decades. We strongly believe that addressing the huge backlog of orphaned mines that continue to pollute western streams and rivers will require empowering watershed groups and Good Samaritan organizations like ours to clean up the local sources of pollution that impact their own communities,” said Trout Unlimited Colorado AML Program Manager Jason Willis, P.E.
“We applaud EPA’s decision to open an office of Mountains Deserts and Plains, which signals a willingness by the agency to expand its efforts beyond CERCLA [Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, known also as Superfund] clean-ups to include these local collaborations,” Willis added.
The office location would also tap into local expertise located nearby in Golden, where professors and students at the Colorado School of Mines would bring a knowledge and education pipeline to the office and provide experience in “creating sustainable mining practices for the future.”
Colorado School of Mines President Paul C. Johnson, PhD, said he and the school were “excited about the potential to support its [OMPD] mission, especially given our close proximity, world-renowned expertise in both mining and environmental engineering, and many partnerships with the mining industry.”
Colorado School of Mines’ M. Stephen Enders, PhD, agreed. “The legacy of abandoned mine sites in the Western U.S. has been an environmental albatross around the neck of modern-day mining companies and it is way past time to clean them up. Colorado School of Mines has expertise and experience that can help address the cleanup, and we are looking forward to working with the EPA.”
Western environmental officials like Wagner, Cabrera, and Byrne lauded the new office’s mission and the push for more accountability in federal application of regulations and responsiveness to local communities.
“By centralizing the decision-makers on resource issues that matter to the communities in the West – including hardrock mining and legacy mining cleanup efforts – we can better ensure the federal government’s resources, expertise, and innovative technology is being leveraged in the most efficient and scientific manner. This is a win-win: for the environment, the taxpayers, and the American people,” said Newhouse.
While Benevento acknowledged that mining issues exist across the country, the West in particular has struggled at times to tackle the overwhelming number and complexity of legacy mining issues, leading to decades-long backlogs and community frustration, he said.
Rep. Lamborn pointed to the office’s efforts to encourage voluntary cleanups to address the backlogs as a key component for his support.
“The West has complex and unique issues related to hardrock mines and the remediation of legacy mine lands. This new office will be critical in supporting conservation organizations’ efforts to voluntarily undertake projects to improve conditions at abandoned mine lands in our area,” Rep. Lamborn said. Doing so would “cut red tape” that stalls cleanup efforts, he added.
“I commend EPA for establishing a western lands-focused office that will address the complex problems associated with hardrock mine cleanups. I am encouraged by EPA’s intent to concentrate on innovative yet practical solutions that respect local concerns,” said ADEQ’s Cabrera.
Oklahoma’s Rep. Wagner agreed. “The recognition that putting subject matter experts in the area that is affected by regulations and regulatory actions to work with state local and tribal governments achieves the best outcomes for public health and the environment. We are looking forward to continuing our partnership to restore valuable habitat and protect our natural resources,” said Rep. Wagner.
Other western elected officials expressed gratitude for EPA’s announcement Wednesday afternoon.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) applauded the office’s mission to “promote accountability, streamline remediation, encourage the formation of new partnerships.”
U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said the West had too long been ignored in favor of more populated areas. Cleaning up after historical mining practices is necessary as the country moves forward with the next stage of hardrock mining for domestic needs such as renewables and other technologies.
“From Abandoned mine recovery, to future mine permitting, and other critical issues this EPA office will move forward projects that will create thousands of jobs for the American people. Now more than ever we need a strong domestic mining industry that can meet our own needs without being reliant on foreign adversaries and today’s announcement helps to make that possible,” said Rep. Gosar.