Colorado ‘Dodged A Bullet’ With Mine Spill, Gov. Hickenlooper Says

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Photo: Hickenlooper On CM Jul 20 2015 Looking Right (HV)
Gov. John Hickenlooper on a 2015 image.

It could've been worse. That's Gov. John Hickenlooper's read on the 3 million gallons of toxic waste water that spilled out of the Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado on Aug. 5. The filth turned the Animas River orange and forced its closure for more than a week before slowly draining away into the San Juan River in New Mexico.

The governor says he's confident that the Animas will recover, and says he's taking steps to make sure the people on its banks do, as well. He has declared a state disaster, and expects a federal declaration to come soon. He also recommends that the state tourism board send more marketing money than normal to the region, as it did for communities affected by floods in 2013. But he says the EPA bears the brunt of the responsibility for compensating affected Coloradans. The agency has set up a claims process for residents and businesses.

Yesterday Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner talked with the governor about the spill, as well as Colorado's responsibilities under the Obama Administration's new clean power plan, the death penalty, banking for the marijuana industry, and the 2016 presidential race.

Hickenlooper on the environmental impacts of the Gold King Mine spill:

"There don't seem to be large deposits of silt, or the veneer with these heavy metals... We're certainly going to keep testing... it doesn't mean we couldn't find something, but we don't anticipate that we're going to have an environmental tail on this that's going to have significant repercussions for a long period of time. We were very fearful at the beginning, but as close as we can measure and observe, I think we dodged a bullet."

On legislation he supports to help future mine cleanups

"We've been saying this for a while now... There's some criteria in the old law, existing law, that really makes it so no one's going to do anything. We should change that. We should make it so nonprofits, together with private sector businesses, with the EPA, with the state, can work together and try to find cost-effective ways, I mean we've got a couple hundred of these mines that we know are leaking seriously... This has been going on for 50-100 years. Enough is enough. We should start trying to accelerate the remediation of these sites."

On the Obama Administration's new Clean Power Plan:

Hickenlooper has said he intends to meet the carbon reduction goals set by the EPA this month. But Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman says the goals are "unrealistic," and raise "significant concerns for Colorado," and is considering suing the EPA.

"[The attorney general and I] haven't had a chance to talk... One of the amazing things about this moment in time is that inexpensive natural gas is a very, very clean fuel. And we have a couple of aged coal plants in Colorado... there might be one or two or three that might be able to be converted to natural gas, and natural gas right now is so inexpensive, it might allow us to achieve the reductions without significant cost increases [for consumers]...

"We don't see the evidence [to support a lawsuit] based on what we know."

On whether he'll set up a commission, or take another formal path, to discuss the future of the death penalty in Colorado:

"I think we need to get through the one [death penalty] trial still going on right now... so let's put that off for a few weeks... I don't think we should be discussing what we're going to be doing when there are capital punishment cases still pending... I think there could be [a commission convened]."

On his reaction to the Federal Reserve's denial of a license to a credit union designed to serve marijuana businesses:

"We're back to the drawing boards... [The Fed] definitely put the legal marijuana industry in Colorado at a higher risk. Having an all-cash system is an invitation to corruption and crime. So we're not going to give up... Senator Bennet and Senator Gardner are both on board... [But] we were very disappointed."

On whether he has pledged support to any of the 2016 presidential candidates:

"I saw Hillary Clinton a few weeks ago, and she, over the course of about 30 minutes, speaking to a small group of people, went through her perspective on this country and what she would do for the middle class. And she just described her experiences as first lady, as a senator, as secretary of state... I was impressed. I don't think there's anyone else running in either party who's as ready for the job, who can walk in on Day 1 and just know how big a job this is... She hasn't asked me to endorse her but I certainly have been supporting her."