Mine cleanup continues through EPA freeze and thaw

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When the new presidential administration ordered a freeze on hiring federal employees and put a temporary halt to new contracts and grants from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), people running that agency and the communities where it’s actively working were left with more questions than clarity.

It appears the hold on contracts has been lifted. But the uncertainty of the situation surrounding the EPA hit close to home because the agency has a big hand in Taos County through the Chevron Questa mine. The mine, since shuttering in 2014, is being simultaneously decommissioned and remediated.

Indications from Chevron as well as EPA staffers suggest reclamation and decommissioning work in Questa has gone ahead in the first weeks of the Trump administration and should continue as planned.

Tommy Lyles, a spokesperson for the Questa Chevron mine, told The Taos News Jan. 31 the federal freeze on hiring and contracts “certainly doesn’t have any impact on the work we’re doing here.”

While the EPA oversees the cleanup work at the mine site through the sprawling “Superfund” process, it is Chevron that is actually running the show and contracting the work. “We haven’t heard anything from [the EPA]. We’re going to continue with what we’re doing based on what’s already been prescribed in the record of decision,” which is the guiding document directing the cleanup work.

The thrust of the work at the mine, Lyles said, is getting the water treatment plant up and running. The plant — which cleans water coming off of the surface of the mine in addition to water accumulating in its below-ground chambers — was supposed to be functioning by autumn of last year. A temporary treatment plant was being constructed as a stopgap, but wind damaged that facility. Chevron abandoned the temporary plant and started to again send water down the tailings pipeline.

The tailings pipeline will continue to be used until either the main water treatment plant or the temporary plant is brought online, Lyles said.

There was work and movement outside the water treatment plant Jan. 27.

Furthermore, EPA staffers handling the cleanup suggested during a Jan. 26 meeting with local elected officials that established programs — such as Superfund projects — were safe from the freeze, particularly because it’s a matter of public health. It is “more obscure” programs and initiatives in the agency that were more likely to be at risk, they said.

But even if the freeze and thaw of the EPA’s contracts don’t directly impact the reclamation and decommissioning of the mine, it’s the long-term implications that have some environmentalists and citizens concerned.

“While the Chevron mine remediation is being paid for by Chevron and not the EPA [and] taxpayers, there is some concern that confusion within the EPA about the administration’s policy priorities and funding freezes might impact the ability of the EPA to devote the necessary staff time and attention to the issues at Questa,” said Joe Zupan, executive director of Amigos Bravos, a watershed policy and advocacy group based in Taos.

And during the Jan. 26 meeting with the EPA, one person in the audience questioned what would happen to the water quality standards used by the environmental agency if Trump’s pick to lead the EPA — Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier and ardent challenger of the EPA’s standards — is confirmed.

“I don’t think the people here would be concerned if the standards were made higher … except Chevron would pay a lot more money. But if standards were lowered, that would be a big issue of concern. That wouldn’t sit well with people here,” the audience member said.

While the EPA staffers said they hadn’t heard of any “rumblings” of changing the standards, the person in the audience countered, “Anytime the head of your bureau is going to file lawsuits challenging every standard there is, you got to figure … I don’t know … we just don’t know.”

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