The Environmental Protection Agency’s account of a massive toxic spill it caused in Colorado earlier this month reads like the script from a disaster movie.
The agency released documents Thursday that provide a minute-by-minute account of events that unfolded Aug. 5 at the Gold King Mine in Colorado, when the agency caused three million gallons of toxic wastewater to be released into the Animas River.
The account shows that EPA was taken almost completely by surprise when a tidal wave of acidic water came spewing out of a 10-foot-wide blowout hole, flooding the work site and later polluting the waterways in three states.
The account depicts a situation in which someone could have easily been injured or killed. The only casualty of the toxic “blowout” was a black Suburban SUV used by the EPA contractors to get to the site.
The blowout completely engulfed the Suburban, which was parked near a pond used to remove metal tailings from the mine.
Pictures released by the agency show the SUV halfway submerged under a river of yellow sludge. The timeline of the destruction says the vehicle was completely un-drivable, forcing the contractor manager to walk to alert authorities.
The account says he left on foot to get picked up and driven to an area where he could transmit a phone message. Other contractors stayed behind to monitor the spill.
The official account almost reads like a countdown:
• “10:51 [a.m.]: A small leak was observed approximately 15 to 20 feet above the anticipated elevations of the floor of the [mine’s opening]. Work stopped and the excavator moved back from the excavation area.
• 10:54: The hole had begun to enlarge and water was pouring out.
• 10:58: The hole had expanded significantly, later at about 10 feet wide by 15 feet high. Portions of the mine tailings sumps and access road had begun to wash away. At this time [the EPA team] realized that the [government] Suburban had been parked at the toe of the mine tailing dump where much of the discharged water had flowed. The vehicle was later found …to be water damaged, would not start, and was un-drivable.”
Thursday’s release comes a day after EPA issued a report from an internal investigation that showed the agency underestimated the threat of a blowout at the mine, even after being warned that a large spill was likely.
EPA officials told reporters Wednesday that the contractors believed the pressure at the mine was too low to cause a blowout.
Both GOP and Democratic lawmakers have been critical of how EPA handled its response to the spill. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House science committee, has started an investigation and will hold a hearing Sept. 9. He has called on EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and the agency’s contractor to testify.