Colorado officials Wednesday were bracing for impacts of President Donald Trump's order to freeze federal Environmental Protection Agency funding on cleanup work and enforcement of federal mandates to protect air and water.
EPA regional staffers told The Denver Post that they're working to continue some funding. Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton staffers received assurances from a senior White House adviser that work around the Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado will continue.
The freeze, which Trump ordered Tuesday on new grants and contracts awarded by the EPA, may cover support for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and other agencies charged with carrying out work that otherwise would not be funded.
EPA grants and contracts for work in Colorado during the 2017 fiscal year numbered 149 with a total value of $6.37 million, according to a database on the federal government website usaspending.gov, which tracks how tax dollars are spent.
Among those awards, $1.5 million was scheduled for Missouri-based contractor Environmental Restoration, the company the EPA has relied on for cleanup work around the Gold King Mine. An EPA-led Environmental Restoration crew in 2015 accidentally triggered a blowout at the mine, leading to a planned federal cleanup of about 47 inactive mining sites in the area that drain 5.4 million gallons a day of acidic metals-laden muck into headwaters of the Animas River.
Tipton spokeswoman Liz Payne said staffers received White House assurances that Gold King restoration work and water monitoring will continue. "We worked yesterday to get in touch with a representative from the administration and the EPA transition," Payne said. "We received confirmation this morning that the directive does not affect any activities at the Gold King Mine."
Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday asked for help on the freeze, pushing for clarification on what it may mean - and staffers said Hickenlooper Wednesday evening still was seeking clarification.
“We received notice … that the team from the new administration asked the EPA to temporarily suspend grant and contract awards. The communication was ambiguous and did not explain the duration or scope of the freeze,” Hickenlooper said.
“This freeze could potentially impact the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's ability to carry out its federally mandated commitment to protect clean air, clean water and safe drinking water. We have sought clarification from the EPA and have asked for assistance from Senators (Cory) Gardner and (Michael) Bennet,” he said.
Sierra Club officials have raised concerns about a potentially huge impact around the Western U.S. involving hundreds of millions of dollars. They contend cleanup and planned redevelopment of numerous Superfund environmental disasters and brownfield former industrial sites, such as old gas stations and coal mines, will be stalled if federal EPA funds to states are frozen.
"President Trump's decision to freeze new grants should be a major red flag for anyone in Colorado who prioritizes public and environmental health over corporate profits," Sierra Club Colorado chairman Jim Alexee said. "The EPA provides millions of dollars in grants each year to Colorado for cleanup efforts and air and water protections that our communities can't afford to lose."
EPA officials based in Denver said they're reviewing grants and contracts information. "The agency is continuing to award the environmental program grants and state revolving loan fund grants to the states and tribes," EPA spokeswoman Lisa McClain-Vanderpool said. "We are working to quickly address issues related to other categories of grants. The goal is to complete the grants and contracts review by Jan. 27."
CDPHE officials weren't available, but an agency spokesman issued a prepared statement from director and chief medical officer Dr. Larry Wolk.
"The EPA has yet to inform us of the timing and extent of the funding freeze. On an annual basis, CDPHE receives $28 million to support department environmental programs, most of which comes from several grants from EPA. This represents approximately one-third of the funding CDPHE relies upon to implement and ensure compliance with a variety of federal laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Hazardous Waste Program and the Clean Air Act," Wolk said. "In the event of a freeze, CDPHE's leadership team will work together to implement changes so the loss of funding will have the least negative impact to the state's environment."