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EPA begins ambitious effort to accelerate mining cleanups in the West
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EPA begins ambitious effort to accelerate mining cleanups in the West

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The Environmental Protection Agency has just done a very un-EPA-like thing.

Last Wednesday it announced the creation of an “Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains” — a Woody Guthrie-esque name for an operation that surprisingly cuts across the rigid bureaucratic lines that have always controlled the agency’s work.

The aim is to improve the agency’s response to hard-rock mine pollution in the west, a mammoth problem EPA has stumbled over in many well-documented instances:

 The largest Superfund complex in the country, Butte and Anaconda, where cleanup has already taken more than three decades, much of that consumed by bureaucratic wrangling as opposed to moving contaminated dirt;

 The Gold King spill in 2015, where an EPA contractor broke an old dam and released a horrifying deluge of toxic tailings into the Animas and San Juan rivers;

 And perhaps most egregious of all, a glacially slow response to a giant public-health issue, the deadly legacy of abandoned mid-20th-century uranium mines on Navajo Nation lands.

The underlying premise is that Superfund has worked far less well cleaning up sprawling mine-waste sites in the West than it has for what it was initially designed – urban, Eastern cleanups in much more confined areas (not that all of them have gone swimmingly either).

It is an acknowledgement one size does not fit all when it comes to environmental remediation, and that sprawling, hundreds-of-acres sites present very different problems.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, said he is "hopeful that this new office will promote accountability, streamline remediation, encourage the formation of new partnerships, and drive innovative, effective solutions."

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said Friday, “I’m still reviewing the announcement, but I’m glad to see a focus on the needs of western states like Montana. It’s critical that any policy changes by EPA need to be backed up by action, especially on Montana’s abandoned mine land and Superfund sites. Transparency, accountability, collaboration, and science-driven approaches absolutely need to drive the bus here, and any attempt to rush cleanup actions that Montanans will have to live with for generations is unacceptable.”

In this move it’s not hard to see the hand of Douglas Benevento, currently unconfirmed as Deputy EPA Administrator but functioning in that No. 2 role. Benevento saw the problem up close when he was administrator of the agency’s Region 8 – Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, the Dakotas – and when he previously directed Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment.

The EPA’s statement announcing the new Colorado-based office said it is “born out of lessons learned at sites across the country such as the Bonita Peak Mining District in Colorado (site of the Gold King fiasco) and the Silver Bow Creek Superfund site in Butte, Montana.”

In an interview with The Montana Standard, Benevento was asked just what those lessons were.

“Communities in the West want this work done faster,” he said. “And we want to bring a focus on how to do that with these larger sites. With historic mining sites you’re dealing with groundwater, with tailings impoundments, with capping waste. And you’re dealing with people — blood lead levels, cleaning up yards. It’s unique to the West.”

Benevento said the office “will bring more accountability to sites like this. We shouldn’t be 30 years in to a large site with no plan for finishing. It shouldn’t take three decades” to produce an agreement like the Butte Hill consent decree (expected to be lodged with a federal judge this month), he said.

Benevento has been credited with an instrumental role in bringing many years of negotiation on the Butte CD to resolution quickly after he took the helm at Region 8.

He said when he assumed a broader oversight role at the agency, he visited the Navajo Nation. “All I could think about was Butte and Anaconda,” he said. Both cleanups, he said, have taken far too long.

“There is a $1.3 billion trust fund to clean up parts of the Navajo site,” he said. “Only a fraction has been spent.” He said he was told the agency needed to apply more human resources to the cleanup, “and so we’re doing that.” Also, he said, the agency needs to work with tribal officials in a more collaborative way. “They are great partners and we want to work more effectively with them.”

Benevento said the idea behind the new office was not to take authority and accountability from the regions, but to take decision-making once done at headquarters and bring it much closer to the work itself. In that sense, the office’s creation is an acknowledgement that East Coast-based bureaucracy has not adequately understood Western issues and has not executed its oversight correctly.

But the regional bureaucracies can’t help but be affected. The office’s responsibilities will span regions 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 – almost exactly everything west of the Mississippi.

The size of the area and the size of the problem are both staggering. It is estimated there are more than half a million abandoned mines in the West. In Montana alone, there are thousands of abandoned hard-rock mines, which cause problems with acid mine drainage — the outflow from unearthed rock containing sulfides, which reacts to being exposed to air and water  — as well as heavy metals contamination and issues such as radon gas accumulation.

Some 63 mining sites across the west are on the Superfund list. But the issues spread far wider.

The Westside Soils operable unit of the Butte Superfund site, a problem within a problem, illustrates something that plagues the EPA at many hardrock sites around the West. While most of the Butte sites have a clear “PRP” or potentially responsible party — Atlantic Richfield, which inherited massive environmental liabilities when it bought the Anaconda Copper Mining Company — Westside Soils is different. It includes many abandoned mine sites and waste dumps for which there is no clear PRP. Work has barely been started to survey and catalogue the many problem locations in the unit.

Benevento says the agency wants the new office to be closely connected to research and development operations, where new remediation techniques are being surfaced. “Some of these new techniques involve passive treatment, which may mean we won’t have to treat water in perpetuity at some sites,” he said. If such treatment techniques are found to be effective, it would greatly reduce operations and maintenance expenses at Superfund sites.

Also, he wants lessons learned in one region to be available to cleanup managers in other regions. “Technology transfer between regions is really important,” he said.

Two other less obvious roles for the office are:

 Coordinating responses with other federal agencies for hardrock mining sites on federal lands. That’s a big deal. The Mining Act of 1872 incentivized the settling of the West by giving prospectors the rights to mine on federal lands for literally pennies. Many of the resulting mine sites are now major, big-dollar headaches. So it’s important that EPA coordinate effectively with BLM, Forest Service and other major federal landholders;

 And working with so-called “Good Samaritan” cleanup efforts. Sometimes an NGO like Trout Unlimited or the Nature Conservancy wishes to go to work to clean up an abandoned mine. Under existing regulations, that can be difficult – once an organization touches a site, it can become liable for any further work needed. “We want to focus on making Good Samaritan cleanups easier,” Benevento said. “It should be as un-bureaucratic as possible. We should be incentivizing those cleanups. Organizations that want to do remediation should have a partner and not an obstacle in EPA.”

Shahid Mahmud, who has been EPA’s national mining team leader, will lead the office. Benevento was careful to credit both Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Peter Wright, assistant administrator for land and emergency management, for their roles in making the new office happen. He credited Wright with the initial idea. “I’m a Westerner, and I should have thought of this, but he did, and I have to live with that,” he joked. But it’s clear Benevento played a big role.

Will it work? Only time will tell. And there may not be much time. Federal bureaucratic innovations tend to be closely tied to individual administrations. If President Trump loses in November, for instance, Joe Biden would doubtless name a new EPA administrator, and political appointees in the agency – like Benevento and Wright – would likely be replaced.

Benevento understands that, but he says if the office can make real progress in making the agency more accountable and effective in the West, the region’s political leaders may insist on its continuation.

After all, this land is your land, this land is my land.

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