EPA Opens New Office of Mountains, Deserts, and Plains

EPA Opens New Office of Mountains, Deserts, and Plains
A sign warning people to stay away from a dangerous area of mines and waste-rock piles is pictured in Calico Ghost Town, Calif. (Scottthezombie, CC BY-SA)
Alan McDonnell
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a new Office of Mountains, Deserts, and Plains this week to better address the clean-up of legacy mining sites and abandoned mines across the western United States.
The new office will be located in Lakewood, Colorado, and will target multi-disciplinary issues unique to the region, assuming oversight responsibilities for hardrock mine remediation sites west of the Mississippi River. According to the EPA, the Office of Mountains, Deserts, and Plains will act as a contact point for states, tribes, and other federal agencies that are stakeholders in such remediation projects, and will also support conservation organizations involved in so-called ‘Good Samaritan’ mine reclamation projects.

“Done are the days of a one-size-fits-all approach to remediation,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler at a press conference in Colorado Springs. “The West is a special place, with special environmental challenges deserving of its own office within EPA.”

“Under President Trump’s leadership, this new office will provide effective solutions, and achieve important milestones in the cleanup of hardrock mining Superfund sites in the American West as well as foster great partnerships with states, tribes, and local communities,” Wheeler said.

Native American groups also welcomed the news of a dedicated office for mine remediation.

“The Navajo people have suffered, and continue to suffer, enormous adverse impacts to their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health as a result of the federal government’s past investment in uranium extraction from the Navajo Nation,” said Jonathan Nez, President of the Navajo Nation in a statement. “Consequently, we support and applaud U.S. EPA’s establishment of a new office within the Office of Land and Emergency Management whose primary focus will be to expedite the clean-up of abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.”

Dedicated Remediation Staff

According to the EPA, the new office is the result of lessons the Agency learned at Superfund and remediation sites across the United States, such as the Silver Bow Creek Superfund site in Butte, Montana. Hardrock mining cleanup is a complex process, the Agency says, and Western mining regions have special issues and unique factors that need to be accounted for.

The Agency points out that up to now, the EPA’s resources in the cleanup and remediation of hardrock mining sites had been diffused across numerous locations, which impeded the Agency’s work.

According to the EPA, “Historical methods for mineral extraction and beneficiation can create environmental problems, including acid mine drainage, erosion and sedimentation, chemical releases, fugitive dust, habitat destruction, surface and groundwater contamination, and subsidence.” In addition, many sites across the Western United States do not have viable current or former owners, making it more difficult for such sites to compete with Superfund sites for funding.

“Today’s announcement is a step in the right direction because it will put decision makers closer to the people who fall under their jurisdiction,” said Congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). “We know that out-of-touch decisions can cause untold challenges for individuals and businesses in Wyoming. I applaud the Trump Administration’s efforts to give local stakeholders more control over their communities—instead of empowering the federal government—and today’s announcement builds on that trend.”
“For too long, the EPA has ignored the priorities of Western States, the creation of the Office of Mountains, Deserts, and Plains within the EPA 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,” said Congressman Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.). “From Abandoned mine recovery, to future mine permitting, and other critical issues this EPA office will move forward projects that will create thousands of jobs for the American people. Now more than ever we need a strong domestic mining industry that can meet our own needs without being reliant on foreign adversaries and today’s announcement helps to make that possible.”