Tester blasts EPA for out-of-state contracts on Superior cleanup
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has scolded the Environmental Protection Agency for awarding bids for the Superfund cleanup of mining wastes in and around Superior to companies from outside Mineral County.
"I am disappointed to learn that the EPA is not making the local labor force a true partner in the agency's cleanup efforts, but is instead contracting and getting resources from outside the local community and Montana," Tester wrote in a letter to Julie DalSoglio, the EPA's Montana bureau chief.
Mineral County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, at 10 percent. Tester urged the EPA to contract with local businesses as the project moves forward.
"Using the local labor force, you will not only improve the environment, you will also have an important and profound economic impact on a hard-hit part of the state," he said.
The EPA has the best interests of the community and Superior's economy in mind, DalSoglio said on Friday, promising to contract with more local businesses as the project moves forward.
"I understand the senator's position," she said. "(Superior) wants good jobs, these are tough economic times and the EPA really understands that."
Superior was declared a Superfund site last September, making it eligible for environmental cleanup funds. Soil tests at sites in Superior and outside town revealed high levels of lead and arsenic and other toxins – remains from the former Iron Mountain Mine and Mill, which operated from 1909 to 1953.
Remediation work began this summer. The proposed cleanup is broken into two phases, the first of which was deemed a "time critical removal action" because of the need to clean up residential parts of town. Because of the time-sensitive nature and need for labor with special skills, there were only a limited number of contractors nationwide who met the criteria, DalSoglio said.
She knew of at least one local contractor who bid for work on the project, but they missed two deadlines. While the business doing much of the residential cleanup is based out of Denver, many of the other contractors are from Helena, she said. The EPA contracted for gravel from a Thompson Falls business.
At the same time, the EPA has spent $150,000 in Mineral County to purchase materials and hotels for contractors.
"The EPA should try their best to use local resources," DalSoglio said. "That's generally our approach. We typically are able to do that."
Next summer, as the cleanup heads into its second phase, the EPA will have more opportunity to hire local contractors because there won't be as much of a time crunch, she said. The second phase will focus on cleaning up the Flat Creek watershed. It's possible the EPA may also do more site investigation, sample collections and perform a health-risk assessment.
"We will be sure the local community knows about those opportunities," she said.
Tester has been an advocate of Montana's small businesses securing federal contracts. He has hosted workshops on how local businesses can secure the contracts and introduced legislation that gives small businesses a fair shot at competing for federal work.
The EPA plans to respond to Tester's letter by gathering information and specifics on what the agency has done so far in terms of hiring locally and what it plans to do in the future, DalSoglio said.