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Golden, Co. - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is questioning whether Gov. Bill Owens administration was too soft on a major polluter by proposing to let Coors Brewing Co. donate $98,000 for killing almost all fish in 7 1/2 miles of Clear Creek.
On Aug. 24 of last year, Coors illegally spilled 77,000 gallons of beer into the creek near Golden and killed 50,422 fish. The fish kill was believed to be the largest in Colorado in at least two decades, wildlife officials said. It came 10 years after a similar Coors accident wiped out 13,193 fish in Clear Creek.
State regulators and Coors executives defended the proposed pollution settlement as tough but fair. The Owens administration agreed to waive a government fine against Coors as long as the brewer made a tax-deductible $98,000 donation to a private group cleaning up old mine wastes on Clear Creek.
However, EPA regulators have questioned whether state regulators unfairly discounted Coors' history of environmental abuse. The brewer's sewage plant, which caused the beer spill, violated national water quality standards 31 times in the past five years, giving it the sixth-worst record of Colorado's 102 major wastewater treatment facilities. None of those other facilities caused extensive fish kills.
Since 1990, Coors has pleaded guilty to two criminal violations of water quality laws and paid more than $2.1 million for hundreds of civil violations of national air, water and toxic waste laws. Those penalties came while the brewer, famed for its "Rocky Mountain Spring Water," promoted itself as environmentally sensitive in TV ads for its Coors Pure Water 2000 campaign.
A December EPA letter, sent to state officials before the latest Coors pollution settlement was announced last month, challenged Colorado's proposal. "You have stated that Coors has made some corrective measures, but were unable to articulate what these measures were or how the measures would prevent future spills," EPA official Diane Sipe told the state.
Coors spokeswoman Aimee St. Clair said: "We feel it's a fair agreement. We're glad the money is going to help the creek."
Doug Benevento, chief environmental regulator for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the state did consider Coors' five years of sewage violations when calculating the settlement, but not the 1991 fish kill or air and toxic waste violations.
"This is a punitive penalty for the spill that Coors was the cause of," Benevento said. "We're looking for injunctive relief, and we're looking for some assurance that this won't happen again."