Congress Begins to Dissect EPA's Massive Sludge Spill

WASHINGTON – Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee blasted the Environmental Protection Agency for its involvement in an August mine breach that resulted in millions of gallons of sludge spilling into several waterways in the mountain west.

During a hearing earlier this month, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the panel chairman, accused the EPA of a “lack of transparency” in its handling of the catastrophe, adding that the narrative surrounding the mine disaster “would be much different if this spill had been caused by a private company.”

Smith characterized the EPA’s negligence as “particularly inexcusable” since there were known procedures that could have prevented the fouling of the rivers. Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation suffered the brunt of the impact.

“According to news reports, it took the EPA over 24 hours to inform the public about the seriousness of the spill and their initial claim of one million gallons of toxic waste was later revised when it was learned that it was actually three million gallons,” Smith said. “Then, after the incident, all we heard from the EPA was that the toxic water in the river was dissipating and that the river was returning to pre-spill levels. The EPA neither took responsibility nor were they forthright with the American people.”

Smith found support for his criticism from Donald Benn, executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, who said the spill has had a major effect on tribal lands. He wants responsibility for disaster response shifted from the EPA to another agency and called for an independent body to assume charge of any investigation.

Benn said permitting the EPA to investigate the spill represented a conflict of interest and he further maintained that there exists a "lack of trust" for the agency within the Navajo Nation.

“No other environmental bad actor would be given leeway to investigate itself," Benn said.

He also said members of the tribe still require assistance, particularly directed at farmers and ranchers who continue to ship in clean water.

"At this moment, we simply request assistance from the responsible parties to make us whole and return the beauty and hozho (or peace and balance) to our river and our people," he said.

The disaster occurred on Aug. 5 as the agency was investigating the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo. Work 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.

Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, acknowledged that the spill was “a tragic and unfortunate incident and the EPA has taken responsibility to ensure that it is cleaned up appropriately.”

“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,” Stanislaus said. “The agency continues to share information as quickly as possible with the states, tribes and local communities as experts continue to work to analyze the impact of the release from the mine.”

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.