Coram, who represents District 58 in the Colorado House of Representatives, is the proud partial owner of four permitted uranium mines in Montrose and San Miguel counties.
Critics allege that his House Bill 1119, introduced in the current legislative session, seeks to help mining companies evade fines which the state could levy on them if they violate state regulations monitored by the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.
CDPHE, as the sole regulator of radioactive material in Colorado, is uniquely empowered to levy fines on the uranium mining industry.
However, as Coram pointed out this week, violations related to the mining, extraction or processing of mineral resources are specifically exempt from the most recently amended version of his bill. He hopes to quell the controversy and steer attention back toward the bill’s original intent, which he said was to reign in the CDPHE’s ability to levy unreasonable fines on businesses for minor violations.
“Somebody’s got some bad information, that the mining industry would have a free ride and no fines,” he said of his bill on Tuesday. “That’s definitely not true.”
The misunderstanding may have stemmed from a widely circulated Durango Herald article in early March. Titled “That House Bill Will Cost You $65 Million,” it described how HB 1119 “started with a desire to reduce fines on all types of businesses” but came out with a huge fiscal note attached to it because as it was originally scribed, the state would not be able to collect penalties and interest off of income tax violations.
Coram then scaled back his bill to address solely the regulatory realm of the CDPHE, and not any other state agencies. This version passed the House Business and Economic Committee in early March on a 7-5 party-line vote.
The Herald article emphasized that debate on the bill at that time focused on state oversight of mining companies.
“We all want to be good stewards of the land. But we don’t want to have an undue pressure coming from an agency that can levy a fine simply because they have the right to do so,” Coram was quoted as saying.
The bill, as it now stands amended, seeks to reduce the state’s ability to slap fines on businesses for what Coram describes as minor (i.e. not an endangerment to health or environment) violations of CDPHE regulations.
“If it’s not an endangerment to health or environment, companies would have 20 business days to cure the problem,” Coram said. “If they cure the problem, there would be no fine.”
Businesses would have 90 days to correct a paperwork violation before getting fined.
“It applies to anyone who deals with CDPHE, excluding mining and oil and gas exploration,” Coram said.
As an example of whom the bill is intended to help, Coram points to a contractor who worked a dirt job along the runways at Denver International Airport. State regulations called for the use of silk as a means of erosion control on the project, which was in violation of FAA regulations “because silk gets into jet engines,” Coram explained. The contractor opted for FAA-compliant straw waddles (long worm-like rolls of straw) instead.
Months after the contractor had finished the job, the CDPHE slapped him with a $120,000 fine for failing to follow the state-mandated procedure.
“They ended up negotiating a settlement for $35,000,” Coram said.
Then there was the Delta County constituent who received conflicting information from the CDPHE in two different years regarding whether he needed an air quality permit for his sludge pond operation. “In 2003, he made an application, but they told him he did not need a permit. In 2009, they came out and told him he did have to have a permit and fined him $1,900 (for the years he had been operating in noncompliance),” Coram said.
“As I told the director of the CDPHE, we’re not attacking the whole organization; on the whole they’re doing a very good job, but certain individuals have taken regulatory power and abused it,” Coram said. “In those situations we want the right to cure the problem. If it is a minor violation and something that can be fixed, we should have the right to fix it. That is the gist of the bill. I think what we’re trying to do is work with them and put some common sense into what they’re doing rather than penalizing for the sake of penalizing.”
The bill has made it through the both the House Business and Economic Development Committee and the Finance Committee, and has picked up Democratic support. It heads to the Appropriations committee next. Senate sponsors for the bill include a Democrat from Pueblo and a Republican from Grand Junction.
“It’s a good common sense bill that a lot of people haven’t understood,” Coram said.