WASHINGTON – Republicans blasted Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy for the recent toxic waste spill that polluted several southwestern waterways and expressed outrage no one has been fired as a result of the incident.
Appearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, McCarthy acknowledged the Gold King Mine release on Aug. 5 was “a tragic and unfortunate incident” and that her agency “has taken responsibility to ensure that it is cleaned up appropriately.”
“All of the affected residents of Colorado and New Mexico and members of the Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Navajo Nation Tribes can be assured that the EPA has and will continue to take responsibility to help ensure that the Gold King Mine release is cleaned up,” she said.
But lawmakers, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), expressed strong displeasure with the EPA’s actions, asserting that the agency’s response was extremely slow and that the Navajo Nation, whose lands were severely impacted by the flow, were not immediately notified.
McCain told McCarthy “you’ve done nothing.”
“Has anyone been fired for almost taking two days to notify the Navajo about the disaster?” McCain asked. “Has anyone been fired for the Navajo’s complaint that the emergency response was inadequate?”
McCarthy told the panel that no one has been fired and that the EPA bears responsibility for the disaster. The administrator said she is waiting for an independent review from the Department of the Interior before determining if any particular individuals bear responsibility. That probe is expected to be completed sometime in October.
“Accidents, by their nature, may not have been caused by any negligence whatsoever on the part of anybody,” McCarthy said.
McCain was not assuaged.
“Someone is responsible for disrupting and harming the lives and welfare, and someone should be held responsible because it happened,” McCain said. “So far, no one has been held responsible, except ‘the agency.’”
The disaster occurred on Aug. 5 as the agency was investigating the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo. Work by independent contractors under the EPA’a auspices was underway to remove water from the mine pool, which would permit the reopening of an adit, or mine entrance. The opening was necessary for the agency to assess mine conditions, characterize mine discharges and determine appropriate mitigation measures.
During that process an old adit crumbled and pressurized water began leaking above the mine tunnel. The leak turned into a breach, resulting in the release of three million gallons of polluted water into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.
The EPA deployed federal on-scene coordinators and other technical staff within 24 hours to Silverton and Durango, Colo., Farmington, N.M., and the Navajo Nation to assist with preparations and first response activities in these jurisdictions. The agency and Colorado officials informed downstream jurisdictions within Colorado the day of the event and before the plume reached drinking water intakes and irrigation diversions. The following day, other downstream jurisdictions were notified.
The waterways initially were contaminated with heavy metals. The EPA now reports that within a week of the spill the Animas and San Juan rivers were recovering. Concentrations of arsenic, lead and other toxins that had initially spiked had returned to pre-spill levels. Treatment plants are now drawing water from the affected waterways and advisories against fishing and boating have been lifted.
McCarthy acknowledged that she is not used to having to defend actions related to an environmental disaster but she insisted the EPA is “taking the spill seriously” and making all corrective actions.
Not everyone was convinced. Citing other incidents of negligence involving the agency, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-AK, maintained that the EPA “has criminally charged individuals for spills less than what your agency did.”
“If you’re going to hold your agency to a higher standard than the private sector, you need to be aware of what your agency has done in the past,” Sullivan said. “Your agency has sent some people to jail.”
McCarthy said she does not believe the EPA was violating the law when the disaster occurred.
The spill was particular hard on the tribes who rely heavily on the local waterways. The Navajo Nation has gone so far as to threaten to sue over the incident.
Gilbert Harrison, a member of the Navajo Nation who runs a 20-acre farm near the San Juan River in a community on the Navajo Reservation called Gadii’ahi, told lawmakers that he and his neighbors rely on the river for irrigation. The contamination proved particularly hard on the alfalfa crop.
Harrison said he didn’t hear about the spill until “about a day or two” after it occurred.
“It was along the lines of ‘did you hear there was a spill and there’s a large gold plume headed our way,’” Harrison said. “The Navajo Nation Irrigation Office shut off the irrigation water from the San Juan River around the same time. Occasionally, water also gets turned off due to maintenance or other issues. So, at that particular time, I did not realize the extent of this event and the effect it would have on my farm.”
Subsequently, the Navajo Nation declared a state of emergency and placed a ban on San Juan River water use.
It was then, Harrison said, “I realized we were in for some rough times. I had to get water to my crops. I started hauling water for our watermelons and cantaloupes from a tank that was provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Additional water tanks were also provided by the U.S. EPA, however we had received word that those tanks were contaminated, so we did not take water from those tanks.”
At age 73, Harrison told the committee, he no longer has the physical capability or the equipment necessary to keep his crops fully watered under such circumstances.
“I only had the capabilities to provide water for my watermelons and cantaloupes, so I had to leave the corn and alfalfa to suffer,” he said.
Harrison estimated that he lost about 40 percent of his alfalfa crop. It generally has a lifespan of about six or seven years and his crop was three or four years into the cycle, meaning he will have to buy seeds and replant to replace the damage despite limited financial resources.
“This spill caused by the U.S. EPA created a lot of chaos, confrontation, confusion and losses among the farming community,” Hamilton said. “As such, I am very disappointed and greatly upset with the U.S. EPA. As an engineer, I understand that no matter the design, you have to prepare for contingencies. I do not feel that the U.S. EPA, nor their contractor was prepared for this tragic event.”
“We had to suffer and still are suffering the consequences,” he added.