Ag Committee Chair Accuses BOCC of ‘Hassling’ Ranchers
OURAY COUNTY – The July 2011 thunderstorm flood that released 1,000 waste tires into the Uncompahgre River from an illegal dump on Butch Gunn’s property in northern Ouray County continues to bedevil county commissioners and staff.
“The county is more than frustrated,” County Attorney Martha Whitmore said at Tuesday’s public hearing, its fourth on the matter.
“We have relied on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to take the lead on this.”
Given the multiple continuances, to date, and the mounting frustration with CDPHE, the commissioners unanimously agreed Tuesday to initiate an “administrative enforcement” of their own.
The county had anticipated CDPHE would, in accordance with the state’s Solid Waste Management Act, order the removal of the 4,000 tires still buried on the property.
But CDPHE now appears to be backing away from issuing a Notice of Violation, and instead moving toward a negotiated settlement that would leave the buried tires in place.
In the words of Commission Chair Heidi Albritton, “With the intervention of political forces, the playing field has changed.”
Those political forces – Colorado state legislators Don Coram (R-Montrose) and Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) – contend that what Gunn has done, over a period of several decades, is a common and accepted “beneficial use” of waste tires.
As Coram told The Watch, about the actions of Gunn (and tire supplier Keith Maynes of Montrose), “They probably deserve a land reclamation award.”
Sonnenberg, who chairs the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, voiced concern, in a July 11 email, that Ouray County might be “hassling other entities that may have had land damaged or items washed from their land by the same rain.”
Sonnenberg praised the Gunns for “attempting to make the land better than it was,” arguing “that filling in washouts utilizing waste tires (as is done in every part of the state including my ranch) is better than allowing soil to erode and wash into rivers or creeks.”
And in an earlier email to CDPHE Legislative Liaison Eliza Park, Sonnenberg urged CDPHE “to close the book on this intervention and allow these people to continue to conserve the land that they have been a part of since the 1940s…”
But CDPHE Solid Waste and Materials Management Program Manager Charles Johnson said, in a telephone interview, that his organization would not close the book on the Gunn case.
Describing Coram and Sonnenberg as “catalysts” in an ongoing “overhaul” of waste tire regulation aiming at designating waste tire disposal a “beneficial use,” in certain pre-approved situations, Johnson said that a stakeholder process will start in August to “shore up what uses would be pre-approved and which would not.”
Commissioner Lynn Padgett, talking via speakerphone with Gunn’s attorney Eric Voogt Tuesday, charged Gunn’s legal team with “meeting out of school” with legislators.
“I’m really disturbed that we found out very recently that your team has had meetings with legislators and the CDPHE,” Padgett said, and also conducted “a site visit last Sunday,” after Ouray County “was specifically told there would be no site visit.”
PRIOR TO INTRUSION OF ‘POLITICAL FORCES,’ A SETTLEMENT IN SIGHT
Whitmore added that before the two legislators’ intervention, Gunn and the county had been close to reaching a settlement, whereby the county would apply for state grant money to remove the tires. But after the legislators’ involvement, the Gunns rejected the county’s offer, coming up with a new plan that would leave the remaining tires in place.
CDPHE is considering that plan now.
In the end, the commissioners voted unanimously to continue the public hearing, for a fifth time in 12 months, to August 14.
Whitmore suggested the county pursue administrative enforcement to “enforce the solid waste disposal statute and regulations.”
The audience of maybe 30 county resident seemed to agree.
“Sometimes you need a stick to move the mule,” said Sheelagh Williams. “It’s essential to have this addressed,” said Rigs Adventure Co. co-owner Heather Patterson. Howard Greene pronounced carcinogenic “tire softness chemicals” a long-term health hazard, and John Hollrah warned against setting a precedent.
“Go ahead and bury thousands of tires. When you do get caught, you just have to build a containment structure,” he suggested, tongue-in-cheek.
Complaining about the unfairness of expecting a defense ready in time for the August 14 hearing, Voogt complained, “This is going to put us under a time crunch.”
Albritton, noting the tire flood 12-month anniversary, snapped, “I think you’re missing the point.
“We want this resolved.”