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Lamborn: EPA may reconsider Colorado Springs stormwater suit

Author: The Gazette and The Associated Press - May 27, 2017 - Updated: May 27, 2017

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U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn has asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to drop a lawsuit against Colorado Springs over contaminated runoff that affects Pueblo County and downstream agriculture.

Lamborn has spoken twice with EPA chief Scott Pruitt about the suit, which was filed in 2016 by the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Denver Post reported.

Pueblo County joined the suit this year, despite having reached a deal in 2016 that calls Colorado Springs to spend $460 million over 20 years on stormwater projects to alleviate runoff problems for downstream communities. In April, Colorado Springs voters approved a ballot measure that will allow the city to keep $12 million in excess tax revenue over two years that will be spent on neighborhood stormwater projects.

Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he waited until President Donald Trump’s administration before approaching the EPA because Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator under President Barack Obama, was “a lost cause.”

The EPA declined to comment.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said Saturday he knew Lamborn had approached the EPA’s Pruitt and that he appreciates the congressman’s efforts.

Even so, Suthers said he doesn’t know if Lamborn’s prodding will do any good because of the EPA’s refusal to acknowledge the city’s efforts to deal with its stormwater issues. Suthers said last month that he’d ask the City Council to put a stormwater fee before voters if the EPA was willing to settle the lawsuit. The city previously had a stormwater fee, but voters repealed it in 2009.

“The fact of the matter is that Colorado Springs has made an incredible investment in developing a stormwater program over the next 20 years, which I think is probably one of the best in the country,” Suthers said.

“It’s frustrating to me that the EPA and the Colorado Department of (Public) Health and Environment appear to be in a litigation mode and don’t seem to be willing to come down or actually closely examine what we’re doing, to let us know if there’s something that they want us to do that we’re not doing and try and resolve this thing.”

The resistance by the EPA and state officials to negotiating an end to the lawsuit is unproductive for everyone, Suthers added. The city might be spending as much as $100,000 a month just in the discovery phase of the lawsuit, he said.

“That’s totally unproductive dollars,” Suthers said. “To the extent that they’re seeking fines and penalties, that’s totally unproductive dollars and we ought to be … spending, every cent to resolve the issues.

“And I think we’re really moving in the right direction and I’m just a bit frustrated by the fact that they don’t seem to want to. We asked for mediation as one of the first things in the suit, and they didn’t want to do that. That was very frustrating to me. We’d like a fast-track resolution of it. They don’t’ seem inclined to do that.”

Runoff in Colorado Springs flows into Fountain Creek and south to Pueblo, where it joins the Arkansas River. The Arkansas is heavily used by agriculture in southeast Colorado.

The EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment filed suit in 2016, alleging water quality violations.

Lamborn said he’d like to get the Colorado state agency to abandon the suit. But Dr. Larry Wolk, the department’s executive director and chief medical officer, said the agency believes “these significant violations need to be corrected in order to protect the state’s water quality.”

“It’s not just the EPA, but it’s also the state of Colorado that filed the lawsuit,” said Jane Ard-Smith, chair of the Sierra Club’s Pikes Peak chapter. “The EPA doesn’t go around suing willy-nilly. We’ve seen a history of stormwater violations, so I would hope that the congressman would see the value of enforcing clean water laws.”

The Gazette’s Rich Laden contributed to this report.

The Gazette and The Associated Press