The days of a one-size-fits-all approach to environmental remediation are over. At the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we are thinking outside the box with creative solutions to local problems, re-evaluating how we manage projects and workflow and streamlining processes agency-wide, so we can achieve real results for all Americans. Under President Trump’s leadership, EPA is embracing region-specific solutions to environmental challenges and fostering partnerships with states, tribes, and local communities. In the American West in particular, we know that we must change how we care for these lands if we are to accomplish our mission of protecting human health and the environment.
By establishing the Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains, EPA can finally address cross-cutting issues unique to the region that have lingered for far too long.
For over 100 years, states west of the Mississippi River have been a domestic source for hardrock mining because of their mineral-rich lands. Most of the sites are located in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Nevada, as well as parts of southern Missouri, western Washington, and northern California. Historical methods for mineral extraction and processing frequently created environmental problems, including acid mine drainage, erosion, and hazardous substance releases that resulted in surface and groundwater contamination and degraded habitat.
The new Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains will more effectively address these issues and more by realigning existing resources and teaming up staff with expertise in these distinct ecosystems.
Located in EPA’s office in the Denver Federal Center in Colorado, the Office of Mountains, Deserts and Plains will assume oversight responsibilities for federal hardrock mining cleanup sites west of the Mississippi River; serve as a central contact for other federal agencies, states, and tribes with responsibility for or impacted by these sites; and develop innovative technologies and adaptive management approaches to address legacy pollution. Creating a western lands-focused office will not only give EPA the ability to prioritize and accelerate cleanup of all mining sites in the west, it will also act as a model for other regions across America needing to address their own unique environmental challenges.
Identifying and managing resources to address issues across geographically diverse regions remains a challenge under the current construct. One example of how the current organization stymies progress, even with adequate resources, is the pace at which 2015 settlement funds have been used to address pollution at the Navajo Abandoned Uranium Mines sites. In many situations, mining sites are being remediated by current and former owners and operators with EPA’s oversight; however, there are others that lack resources to fund cleanup work.
As an innovative response, some operators are remediating sites while re-mining tailings piles and reopening abandoned mines. One such project is currently underway in Missouri, and EPA is reviewing two additional sites in Idaho. Such efforts support the Trump administration’s priority of domestic critical mineral development while addressing some of the country’s most serious environmental cleanup needs.
Over the last three and a half years, EPA has made incredible progress toward a cleaner environment for all Americans. Criteria air pollutant emissions have dropped 7% — making air quality the best it has been since modern record keeping began — and our water is among the cleanest on the planet. We have also re-prioritized cleaning up contaminated lands, many in opportunity zones, making them ready for reuse and the economic growth that comes with it.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of EPA; as we celebrate the important work the agency has done to safeguard human health and improve our air, land and water, we are looking toward the agency’s future, evaluating our approach to achieving our mission so that the next 50 years are equally, if not more, successful.
Under the Trump administration, EPA will continue working collaboratively with states, local governments, and tribes to ensure a sustainable approach to addressing our environmental challenges — both now and for decades to come.
Andrew Wheeler is administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.