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EPA Announces New Office of Mountains, Deserts, and Plains

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by Patrick J. Paul

Declaring that the days of a one-size-fits-all approach to environmental remediation are over, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on September 2, 2020, the creation of a new office Mountains, Deserts, and Plains (OMDP). This new office will have jurisdiction over mining and environmental issues unique to those states west of the Mississippi River. Consistent with the Western focus, the new office will be located in Lakewood, Colorado.

EPA stated that it is embracing region-specific solutions to environmental challenges and to promoting partnerships with states, tribes, and local communities. OMDP will be a Western lands-focused office intended to address issues unique to the region. It plans to exercise responsibility for federal hard rock mining cleanup sites west of the Mississippi while serving as a central contact for other federal agencies, states, tribes, and local communities impacted by the sites.

It will seek to develop innovative technologies and adaptive management approaches in the remediation of legacy pollution and will support efforts of conservation organizations to voluntarily undertake projects to improve conditions at abandoned mine sites.

EPA acknowledged that its current diffused deployment of resources in the remediation of hard rock mining sites creates challenges that can impede remedial progress due to the distinct environmental impacts of historical mining operations and unique ecosystems in the western United States where most of the sites are located. Historical methods for mineral extraction may contribute to acid mine drainage, erosion and sedimentation, chemical releases, fugitive dust, habitat destruction, and surface and groundwater contamination.

EPA also noted that there are many mining sites with no viable current or former owner or operator making it difficult for the sites to compete for funding from the annual Superfund allocation.

Identifying and managing resources to address issues across geographically diverse regions has been a challenge for EPA and the establishment of the OMDP is seen by many as a good step in the direction of acknowledging regional differences, impacts, and best remedial choices.