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Colorado’s Gold King Mine spill sent millions of gallons of contaminated water into the Animas River in 2015; Photograph by Matt Slaby

Federal Freeze Leaves Local EPA-Funded Programs In the Dark

While we still don't know much about the freeze, many programs and services in Colorado could be affected.

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Earlier this week, the Trump administration imposed a freeze on the Environmental Protection Agency’s grant and contract funding, according to a report by ProPublica. While it’s unclear how long the pause will be enforced and what programs (if any) will be affected, the move has left some Colorado agencies that depend on EPA funding in the dark.

Richard Mylott, public affairs representative for EPA Region 8, which is headquartered in Denver, confirmed to 5280 via email that there has been “a temporary pause on some EPA contracts and grants,” but they are “not expected to apply to Superfund cleanup efforts that are underway.”

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That, essentially, is the extent of what we know at this time, as the Trump administration simultaneously imposed a media blackout, part of a broad clampdown on communication with journalists and news organizations by federal agencies.

Mark Salley, communications director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, a state agency that manages programming and regulations around environmental and public health concerns, said in an email that the CDPHE receives about $28 million in funding from the EPA, amounting to about one-third of its budget. Those funds are used to ensure compliance with federal laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Hazardous Waste Program. For example, the state of Colorado was awarded a grant of $15.4 million from the EPA over a period spanning 2014–21 to fund infrastructure necessary for complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act, among other things. This is a normal function of EPA grant funding.

Salley said the EPA has not informed the CDPHE of the timing or extent of the grant and contract freeze. He told 5280 in an email that local programming that could be affected may include: Any work that ensures communities have clean drinking water; long-term cleanup of the Gold King Mine spill in the Animas River (a staffer of U.S. Representative Scott Tipton told Colorado Public Radio that the Gold King cleanup funds won’t be affected); permitting and inspection of oil and gas operations for compliance with air quality requirements; responding to environmental emergencies, including wildfires and flooding; ensuring that industrial facilities operate in compliance with air and water quality permits; and oversight of the cleanup of contaminated superfund sites (including the Colorado Smelter, Summitville Mine, and Central City/Clear Creek).

“Every one of [the six states in EPA Region 8 district, which includes Colorado] gets millions of dollars in grants to do environmental protection work within their state,” said retired EPA administrator Jeff Hart, who oversaw EPA region 8’s budget from 2008 to 10. “A lot of these environmental programs are delegated to the states, and the states receive federal grants to help them conduct that work.”

The agency also issues grants for research. For example, Colorado State University was awarded $2.2 million in 2014 for research on improving water quality.

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Mylott said he could not give specifics about what grants and/or contracts are being frozen, but provided the following statement:

“EPA staff have been reviewing grants and contracts information with the incoming transition team from the new administration. Pursuant to that review, the Agency is continuing to award environmental program grants and state revolving loan fund grants to the states and tribes; and we are working to quickly address issues related to other categories of grants. The goal is to complete the grants and contracts review by the close of business on Friday, January 27.”

Governor Hickenlooper said in a statement issued Tuesday that he has sought clarification from the EPA and is calling on Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner for assistance.

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