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…
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.”
La Plata County recently received $9,700 from the Environmental Protection Agency for costs related to the Gold King Mine spill, which county officials say is a fraction of what it is owed.
Earlier this year, the county received about $200,000 from the EPA for costs incurred immediately after the Aug. 5 EPA-triggered spill of 3 million gallons of contaminated mine drainage into the Animas and San Juan rivers.
But county staff calculated the federal agency should cover an additional $249,224 in expenses related to the spill, and $9,817 to cover costs related to a tour of Superfund sites officials attended last fall to determine the feasibility of Superfund designation for the Bonita Peak Mining District.
“Last week, we received an award of $9,786 to reimburse for the majority of the costs incurred on the feasibility of the Superfund designation,” County Finance Director Diane Sorensen said. “The $249,224 is still unpaid.”
The county applied to establish a cooperative agreement with the EPA, asking for a total of $2.4 million, which includes the $249,224, over a 10-year period for remediation efforts directed toward water quality and mine cleanup. The federal agency is reviewing that agreement.
County commissioners were dismayed with receiving only $9,786 and the lengthy process.
“This has been an expensive education,” Commissioner Brad Blake said.
County officials plan to meet next week with the EPA’s Superfund remedial program director, Bill Murray, to discuss the proposed cooperative agreement.
The call for reimbursement is regional. Last month, the New Mexico Environment Department called for the EPA to issue $1.5 million for costs related to short-term emergency response efforts. The collective request came from 14 New Mexico state agencies, university organizations and communities.
The city of Durango recently received about $2,471 of a initial $444,000 request. The city applied for its own cooperative agreement for $5.6 million to be paid over a 15-year period for incurred and ongoing remedial expenses.
“The initial ($9,786) award to La Plata County was solely to reimburse them for some verifiable costs toward activities they participated in, referring to the Superfund tour to evaluate eligibility for the National Priorities List,” said Cinna Vallejos, who leads the regional Ecosystems Protection and Remediation Support Program for the EPA. “It’s not uncommon for these agreements to be funded incrementally.”
Vallejos said the EPA will continue to evaluate cooperative agreement applications from the county, city and other entities and determine what is allowable. She said they stand to receive more in the future but could not say if the requested amounts will be awarded in full.
She could not disclose details about the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s application for reimbursement or amounts awarded.
The EPA’s recommendation to designate the Bonita Peak Mining District as a Superfund site was added to the Federal Register on April 7.