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Superfund cleanups not affected by EPA freeze on new contracts, officials say

UPDATED: WEDNESDAY, JAN. 25, 2017, 9:31 P.M.

A construction worker washes trucks at the Superfund repository in Kellogg, Idaho in this file photo from 2009. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
A construction worker washes trucks at the Superfund repository in Kellogg, Idaho in this file photo from 2009. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

From nuclear waste on the Hanford Reservation to toxic mining pollution in the Coeur d’Alene River Basin, the federal government is in charge of multiple cleanups of highly polluted sites across the region.

When the Trump Administration told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to freeze new grants and contracts, it left many wondering about the future of that work.

In a brief statement issued Wednesday, EPA officials said the freeze would not affect Superfund cleanups that are underway, or loans or grants to states or tribes.

“EPA staff have been reviewing grants and contracts information with the incoming transition team,” the statement said. “…we are working to quickly address issues related to other categories of grants.”

Idaho officials initially heard that $5.3 million for Superfund cleanup work in the Coeur d’Alene basin was on hold, said Rob Hanson, the state’s waste program manager. However, they later learned the money will be awarded to the state Department of Environmental Quality in early February. The $5.3 million will pay for new road resurfacing to control dust contaminated with heavy metals that could be tracked into people’s homes.

The Washington Department of Ecology receives about $48 million each year from EPA, about 80 percent of which is distributed to communities for water quality and cleanup projects.

“We have more questions than answers at this point,” said Dustin Terpening, the department’s assistant communication manager. “We’re trying not to speculate too much. We still haven’t received any information from EPA.”

Other major cleanup projects in the region include the Midnite Mine, a defunct uranium mine on the Spokane Reservation, and the Upper Columbia River, where decades of toxic releases from a Canadian smelter have polluted beaches.

The Trump Administration’s early actions raise troubling questions, said Rick Johnson, the executive director of the Idaho Conservation League.

“Right now we’re judging based on the signals, and I have yet to hear or see a signal that creates anything but concern,” Johnson said. “The tone is extraordinarily dismissive of science, and of the good work being done on the ground.”

Trump has said he plans to rollback 75 percent of federal government regulations.

“Regulation is another word for safeguard,” Johnson said. “I’m concerned about clean air, clean water and the basic protections the American people have come to expect.”

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