Congress

EPA takes responsibility for Gold King Mine spill

Water flows through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals from the Gold King mine wastewater accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colo., Aug. 12, 2015. The EPA has taken full responsibility for the mine waste spoiling rivers downstream from Silverton, but people who live near the idled and leaking Gold King mine say local authorities and mining companies spent decades spurning federal cleanup help.
Water flows through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals from the Gold King mine wastewater accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colo., Aug. 12, 2015. The EPA has taken full responsibility for the mine waste spoiling rivers downstream from Silverton, but people who live near the idled and leaking Gold King mine say local authorities and mining companies spent decades spurning federal cleanup help. AP

The Environmental Protection Agency’s top official responded to skeptical senators Wednesday about the EPA’s actions following last month’s Gold King Mine spill, defending her agency’s actions in responding to and investigating the incident.

“This was a tragic and unfortunate incident, and the EPA has taken responsibility to ensure that it is cleaned up appropriately,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee at the hearing Wednesday on the spill.

About 3 million gallons of wastewater leaked into the Animas River on Aug. 5, according to the EPA’s statement. The agency’s contractor was at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo., to evaluate and treat mine water that was already leaking when “the pressurized water discharged from the mine into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River,” McCarthy said.

The EPA and Colorado officials notified nearby jurisdictions before the wastewater could reach irrigation diversions and drinking water intakes, McCarthy said. Water toxicity levels are now back to pre-event conditions, she said.

This was a tragic and unfortunate incident.

Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator

In agreement with the lawmakers, McCarthy said the EPA should be held to a higher standard of accountability than private-sector companies facing similar situations. One investigation on the spill has been completed, and two more separate evaluations are underway.

The EPA released an internal review on Aug. 26 that assessed the events leading to and following the Gold King Mine spill. The Interior Department is independently evaluating the factors and has not yet released the data. The EPA’s inspector general is conducting an independent review.

Despite the EPA’s cleanup and investigation initiatives, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said there is a double standard between the way the EPA treats itself and how it treats private companies.

Isn’t it true that if there was a 3 million gallon toxic spill caused by actions of private citizens, that the EPA would act aggressively against that company and those citizens?

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.

“Isn’t it true that if there was a 3 million gallon toxic spill caused by actions of private citizens, that the EPA would act aggressively against that company and those citizens?” Barrasso asked.

A private-sector company would be told to do exactly what the EPA is doing, McCarthy responded. She said the EPA is working to “aggressively get people to safety, aggressively stop the spill and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The focus needs to be shifted to the bigger picture, said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the committee’s ranking member.

“Let’s not just point fingers,” Boxer said. “Let’s get something done.”

The Gold King Mine spill occurred after, at the state’s request, the EPA sent a contractor to assess the ongoing water releases from the mine, according to the EPA’s statement. The plan to evaluate the Gold King Mine was developed by the state, local mining experts and engineers to prevent a spill from happening.

“The mines in (the Colorado, Utah and New Mexico) area leak more than 330 million gallons of acid mine drainage into the Animas River each year,” Boxer said. “That is more than 100 times the amount released during the Gold King Mine spill.”

Not a Colorado-exclusive issue, spillage is caused by polluted, abandoned mines across the country, Boxer said. In California alone, there are about 47,000 abandoned mines, she said. There are over 500,000 abandoned hard-rock mines across the country. Cleaning up these mines is estimated to cost up to $50 billion.

“Instead of scoring political points by blaming EPA for this accident,” Boxer said, “Congress should use this as an opportunity to focus on the longstanding issue of abandoned hard-rock mines that pollute our rivers and streams.”

Iana Kozelsky: (202) 383-6035, @ianakoz

  Comments