Congress Begins to Dissect EPA's Massive Sludge Spill

The agency’s quick action, Stanislaus said, helped contain the leak and flow from the mine, which is now under control and being treated in a series of ponds.

Stanislaus said EPA 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.

“One of the initial lessons learned in the aftermath of the Gold King Mine release is that the EPA can improve its communications regarding releases and other environmental events that may affect multiple jurisdictions,” Stanislaus said.

In order to facilitate communications, he said, regional response teams have been told to strengthen contingency plans, “particularly regarding the need to alert and coordinate with responders in downstream alerts.”

Stanislaus further acknowledged that the agency was not prepared for a worst-case scenario in rehabilitating the Gold King Mine.

"The investigation team also concluded that the emergency response component of the plan did not include the worst-case scenario of a blowout and that's something I committed to, going forward, to make sure that happens," he said.

Stanislaus received some support from Durango. Mayor Dean Brookie testified that the mine waste release into the Animas River “put a Technicolor spotlight on a massive and complex century-old problem that our communities have lacked the resources to address.”

The region, Brookie noted, has a long story of mine waste discharges dating to at least 1899. It is, he said, “the quiet but real catastrophe that has largely gone unnoticed by the public until now.” The EPA has determined that about 23,000 former mines exist in Colorado alone.

“The EPA must be held accountable for this accident,” Brookie said. “Every indication we have received from them shows that they are taking the incident seriously. There is no denying they had their ‘hand on the shovel’ during this incident, but they did not cause this spill on purpose.”

The agency was at the Gold King Mine, Brookie said, “helping to address these long standing environmental issues. Without the EPA and the federal government more broadly, there is simply no option for addressing the risk to human health and the environment caused by the region’s mining legacy. Yes, we can and should hold responsible parties in the mining industry responsible. Local, and state governments, not-for-profits and businesses all also have a role to play. Fundamentally though, our community needs the scientific, technological and financial leadership of the EPA to guide a collaborative process for addressing this problem.”

The hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee was only the first in what is expected to many looking into the Gold King Mine disaster.