Cortez Journal: Congress Grills EPA On Spill

Posted on Sep 10, 2015

As part of a series of congressional hearings, outraged members of the U.S. House of Representatives grilled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and affiliated parties and asked the agency to take responsibility for the Aug. 5 acid water spill from the Gold King Mine that affected multiple water systems in the Four Corners.

The federal Science, Space and Technology Committee on Wednesday complained of negligence and lack of transparency to Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator of the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, who handles the EPA’s emergency-response actions.

Also present were Environmental Restoration LLC President Dennis Greaney, whose company was contracted by the EPA; Geochemical Solutions geochemist Mark Williamson; Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency Executive Director Donald Benn; and Durango Mayor Dean Brookie.

House members dug for the EPA to admit negligence, but Stanislaus repeatedly countered that the EPA was at the mine in the first place to address a red flag the agency knew existed.

On Aug. 5, an EPA-contracted crew was doing reclamation work at the mouth of the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, 50 miles north of Durango.

Workers underestimated water pressure behind the mine’s portal, and they accidentally sent 3 million gallons of rusty orange-tinted sludge cascading into Cement Creek, and subsequently the Animas and San Juan rivers.

Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, cited internal EPA communications before the spill indicating a knowledge of possible conditions “that could result in blowout of the blockages,” questioning why the EPA ignored the “obvious warnings.”

“The warnings weren’t ignored,” Stanislaus said.

“The reason the EPA was asked to be there was to address water buildup. The work plan envisioned was to carefully remove rock buildup from the cave-ins and reduce water. Both the EPA and the state identified a risk for a blowout. None of us wanted this to occur.”

Brookie told the committee, which met in Washington, he didn’t want to place blame for what is “a centuries-old problem.” But Durango’s tourism industry, particularly rafting and outdoor recreation companies, he said, took a huge hit immediately after the orange plume came creeping down the Animas.

The mayor asked federal agencies to look at water-treatment options and overturn an outdated 1872 law that allows mining wastewater to flow unbound.

EPA and independent studies conducted during the past month have consistently shown impacted waters are back to “pre-spill” conditions, which many environmental specialists insist is nothing to brag about. Hundreds of abandoned mines sit within Southwest Colorado as relics to an industry that began 130 years ago. Gold King and three surrounding mines emit an average 330 million gallons of water per year. La Plata County and other nearby counties have felt the brunt of this on multiple occasions, like just last year when a mine water release was disguised by turbid spring runoff.

Greaney, whose company has worked on about 1,300 EPA projects, and Williamson squirmed when pressed if the spill was inevitable and claimed they weren’t qualified to answer.

The spill was devastating to the Navajo Nation, and Benn said communications between the Native American community and the EPA have been limited since Aug. 5, and farmers and irrigators have especially suffered.

“I want to stress that all the impacts are unknown,” he said. “Loss of crops and replacement, seeds and feed for their livestock triggers long-term economic losses.”

The EPA’s transparency is under suspicion, partly because President Obama did not visit the actual spill site, Congress members pointed out.

Showing two separate videos, the committee also accused the EPA of tampering with video recorded onsite to remove audio of the workers’ helpless words of “What do we do now?”

The EPA has published about 2,500 pages of documents since the spill, but that didn’t satisfy some representatives, who likened the incident to the 2010 BP oil spill.

“All I’m asking is for the hypocrisy of the government to stop, and (the agency) be held to the same standards it holds the American people to,” said Barry Loudermilk, R-Georgia.

Stanislaus said when blowouts occur, crews typically place a probe into the mine to pump water, but Ralph Abraham, R-Louisiana, dismissed this as a retroactive plan.

But Don Beyer, D-Virginia, came to the agency’s defense and said placing sole responsibility on the EPA is like “blaming firefighters for the forest fire.”

The EPA has spent approximately $8 million on direct response efforts and spending isn’t over yet. The agency has also established a claim process.

Stanislaus said going forward, the EPA is working to enhance the notification process and explore private partnerships for new technologies such as remote sensing tools.

Superfund dollars, which the town of Silverton has historically resisted, would also provide a “permanent, long-term solution,” he added.

“There’s no real bad guy,” Ed Perlmutter, D-Colorado, said. “We’re trying to fix something 100 years in the making.”