Summit County already seeing impact of EPA about-face
March 9, 2017
Many unknowns remain about exactly how Scott Pruitt will reshape the Environmental Protection Agency, but some effects are already being felt in Summit County.
For years, the county has been the recipient of several EPA grants, many of them administered by the state, to clean up the remnants of its historic mining sites and protect vital watersheds. The agency's Brownfields Program, for instance, which provides funding to sustainable reuse of contaminated property projects, contributed $450,000 to the study and eventual cleanups of the Peru Creek Basin area between Keystone and Montezuma.
The nearby Pennsylvania Mine, which for more than a century had been dumping toxic metals into Snake River, was another major reclamation project in the county that benefited from EPA assistance. The three-year undertaking began in 2013 at a cost of about $3.5 million, of which the EPA furnished $1.8 million. Without those dollars, the occasional Penn Mine blowout would still color the Snake orange with toxic runoff.
"The short answer is the EPA has been instrumental in every one of our mine cleanup operations," said County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier. "They are absolutely essential to our success."
Through its open space and trails fund, the county paid $109,000 early last year for roughly 38 more acres in the Peru Creek area to shift attention to the next abandoned pit carved into the landscape. The plan was to work once again with the state and EPA this year to properly seal and cleanse the Jumbo Mine of potentially harmful pollutants.
"We purchased it in part with the purpose of helping facilitate the EPA to do the project," said Brian Lorch, director of the open space department. "But then their staff told us they're not taking on any new projects until the new administration and who knows where they're at. We don't know the status of the project now."
In late February, the White House previewed its fiscal plans for 2018, and it called for a 24 percent cut, or $2 billion reduction, to the EPA's $8.1 billion annual budget to help offset the proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending. Outside of grants for projects like mine cleanups, more than half of the money the agency passes along to states goes toward source water and air quality monitoring and protection.
The EPA provides important long-term, low-cost loans for water and wastewater treatment plants across the nation as well, on top of funds for state university research programs, environmental education and local pollution prevention programs. Much of that could be in question moving forward.
As part of the recommended cuts, the Trump administration also directed the EPA to consolidate two of its 10 regional offices, and the Denver office, which is headquarters for Colorado, Montana, North and South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, as well as 27 tribes, is one of those targeted for shutdown. The agency is seemingly taking it from all sides after U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., introduced a bill in February that targets full elimination of the EPA by the close of 2018, passing all of those responsibilities on to state environmental offices.
"It's sheer chaos at this point," said Gary Wockner, an environmental activist in Colorado. "The forces of industry and anti-environmentalism are strong and pushing as hard and fast as they can to rabidly stop protecting the American people from pollution, and increase profits for polluting industries as much as they can."
Following Trump's lead, Pruitt — who previously, as Oklahoma's Attorney General, sued the EPA 14 separate times — is now tasked with dissolving several of what some conservatives have labeled "overbearing regulations" authorized under President Obama. On Thursday, the contested appointee openly questioned the science behind human impact on global warming, and his consistent comments appearing to deny the existence of climate change, including ramifications for snowpack, have career conservationists up in arms.
"It's fine to have differing opinions on how to meet the mission of the agency," Gina McCarthy, Pruitt's predecessor under Obama, told The New York Times earlier this week. "Many Republican administrators have had that. But here, for the first time, I see someone who has no commitment to the mission of the agency."
Riding a wave of populism, Trump took office on Jan. 20, and Pruitt officially landed in his new position about a month later. How both will ultimately influence the EPA is still uncertain, but if suggested rollbacks and relaxed regulations become a reality, they may have significant aftereffects across the country, including Colorado's High Country.
"Summit County lives off snow, and that's a big deal," said Wockner. "All of the science in the Colorado River Basin says it's going to get warmer. We've got a clear problem there, and it could impact the county if the U.S. government completely fails to act or turns around 180 degrees."