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EPA announces Colorado-based office dedicated to cleaning up abandoned mines

The Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains will take charge of remediating abandoned mine lands, including the Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado

In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015 file photo, people kayak in the Animas River near Durango, Colo., in water colored yellow from a mine-waste spill. A crew supervised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been blamed for causing the spill while attempting to clean up the area near the abandoned Gold King Mine. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP, FILE)
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The Environmental Protection Agency is creating a new office in Lakewood that will focus on cleaning up abandoned hardrock mining sites west of the Mississippi River, including the Bonita Peak Mining District where the Gold King Mine disaster originated in 2015

The Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains will be located in the EPA’s regional office at the Denver Federal Center, the agency announced during a news conference at the Western Museum of Mining and Industry in Colorado Springs on Wednesday. EPA’s National Mining Team Leader Shahid Mahmud will be the acting director, and the team will have nine full-time staff positions.

The office, which will use existing agency funds, will primarily focus on remediation work at Superfund sites and other abandoned mining locations, which release millions of gallons of pollution into streams each year. Remediation efforts will include cleaning up sites and the surrounding environment, and in some cases rebuilding the mine for operations. 

There are more than 63 Superfund Mining and Mineral Processing Sites west of the Mississippi River, including nine in Colorado. In Colorado alone, there are roughly 23,000 abandoned mines.

Many historic mining sites don’t have an owner or operator to facilitate cleanup operations themselves, placing it in the EPA’s hands.

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“I’m really confident — I don’t think, I know — that this is going to make a significant difference in addressing mines that are abandoned and those in the Superfund program to move them forward more quickly,” said EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Doug Benevento, who called the new office “a victory for the environment, taxpayers and the American people.” 

The new office will also help speed up project timelines, including to clean up hundreds of abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. 

An agreement finalized in February designated funding and resources to clean up 24 of the highest priority mines, five years after the federal government and tribe first reached a settlement on the mines.

A reservoir of clean mine water reclaimed from the contaminated waters of the London Mine in the Mosquito Range near Alma, Colorado on August 7, 2019. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Benevento cited the decades-long wait many communities have faced in seeking environmental remediation. “Communities want it done faster and we will have it done faster,” he said.

Another goal of the office is to make it easier for so-called “good Samaritan” cleanup operations, such as those facilitated by Trout Unlimited or The Nature Conservancy. Current law says that if a group wants to contribute to cleanup efforts, they could be responsible for finishing the job, whether they’re capable of doing so or not. While the law is what it is, Benevento said, the new office will do what it can to make collaborative cleanup efforts “as unbureaucratic as possible.”

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Benevento, who served as the Region 8 EPA administrator based in Colorado, is President Donald Trump’s nominee for the deputy administrator position. He was previously executive director for the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. 

The new office was announced days after an Associated Press investigation revealed the Trump administration’s efforts to fast-track a variety of energy and infrastructure projects under relaxed regulations, including mining operations in Colorado. 

Democrats and environmental groups have been wary of the Trump administration’s efforts to relocate offices and staff away from Washington, fearful that it will dilute their influence before Congress. In 2019, for instance, the administration announced it would move the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters to Grand Junction.

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