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EPA Office to Focus on Western Lands Cleanup, From the West (3)

Sept. 2, 2020, 1:30 PM; Updated: Sept. 2, 2020, 8:35 PM

The EPA announced a new Colorado-based office on Wednesday that will oversee Western land cleanup.

The Office of Mountains, Deserts, and Plains will focus especially on mining cleanup and will provide oversight, guidance, and technical assistance, said Environmental Protection Agency associate deputy administrator Doug Benevento at an announcement in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The office in Lakewood, Colo., will be closer to mine sites and more accessible to communities affected by mine pollution, Benevento said.

“EPA recognizes that the West has distinct needs that aren’t always effectively addressed through existing mechanisms and resources,” he said.

“Done are the days of a one-size-fits-all approach to remediation,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler added in a statement.

The department is running now in office space at a federal facility, and no additional funding is required from Congress, Benevento told reporters after the announcement. No EPA staff will be required to move to Colorado, he said.

Congressional Republicans, including those from the region, praised the move, but at least one environmentalist, from Earthworks, slammed it as “more distraction than solution.”

Mining and Superfund

The West is dotted with legacy mines and sprawling Superfund sites, according to Benevento. Western states are home to 63 mining Superfund sites, some of which span hundreds of square miles.

But the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) that authorizes the Superfund program was designed for smaller sites, as are commonly found in the East, Benevento said.

The new office will “bring a focus on how to address those larger sites,” he said.

Another of the new office’s roles will be to coordinate technology transfer and share best practices among the EPA’s Western regions, Benevento said. It will also focus on cleaning up abandoned uranium mines on Navajo Nation land and helping Good Samaritan groups that want to do partial mine cleanup without being held legally responsible for the entire site.

Shahid Mahmud, a 30-year EPA veteran and leader of the EPA’s National Mining Team, will be the new office’s acting director, Benevento said.

GOP Praise

Congressional Republicans praised the move.

Speaking at the Colorado Springs event, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) said the new office is “yet another step the Trump administration has taken toward increasing transparency, increasing accountability in federal decision making, thereby empowering the voice of local communities.”

And Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said the announcement recognizes the regional and geographical challenges faced by Western states.

The creation of the new office “means that there will now be dedicated staff living and working in the West, focused on the priorities that matter to the people of Arizona,” Gosar said. The office will also advance projects that will create thousands of jobs, he said.

But Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel at Earthworks, said the office is a distraction from what the EPA needs “to address the West’s legacy of environmental pollution.”

“EPA needs money to clean up the legacy of orphaned wells and abandoned mines,” he said. “To prevent pollution of the West, extractive industries need regulatory and legislative incentives not to pollute.”

Other Moves Out West

The move mirrors other Trump administration efforts to locate federal agencies in the West. The Interior Department last month established the new Bureau of Land Management headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., and the Department of Agriculture has moved two of its divisions to Kansas City.

The EPA is already a sprawling agency, with a large headquarters office in Durham, N.C., and major offices based in locations across the country. Wheeler has spoken about the need to base offices outside of Washington, D.C., as a way of attracting new talent.

The Trump administration has defended moving the land bureau and the USDA offices as sensible ways to place federal employees closer to the lands and entities they oversee, and to save money on costly Washington, D.C., office space.

But congressional Democrats, led by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), have derided the moves as an attempt to drive career bureaucrats out of the agencies, isolate them from their peers at other federal offices, and plant them closer to the companies that stand to benefit from their work.

(Adds detail about not requiring funding in sixth paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington (Bloomberg Law) at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com; Jennifer A. Dlouhy in Washington at jdlouhy1@bloomberg.net (Bloomberg)

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com

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