House Republicans blasted the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday for triggering a mine spill that polluted the Animas River, but some Democrats argued the accident was small compared with the amount of pollutants that private mining companies release into the river each year.
House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called the actions of federal and contract workers who accidentally unleashed mining waste into the river at the abandoned Gold King mine near Silverton, Colo. “inexcusable.” The spill polluted waters in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Wednesday’s hearing was the first of several scheduled in Congress.
“The EPA’s negligence is especially inexcusable, since there were known procedures that could have prevented the river’s pollution,” Smith said, adding that the agency has failed to be “transparent” about the spill in the weeks since.
Mathy Stanislaus, the EPA’s assistant administrator in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, described the accident, which resulted in the spill of at least 3 million gallons of contaminated water into the Animas River over two days in August, as “tragic and unfortunate.”
Stanislaus rebutted criticism from the Navajo Nation and others affected by the spill that the agency has not been transparent about the cause and effects of the environmental disaster.
“We have been as transparent as we possibly could,” Stanislaus said.
New Mexico lawmakers – Democratic and Republican – roundly criticized the agency for faulty communication in the days after the spill.
EPA employees caused the spill Aug. 5 as they tried to safeguard reservoirs of contaminated water left behind by mining companies. Waters in northwestern New Mexico were affected most, but Stanislaus said Wednesday that New Mexico’s waters are back to normal.
“What we have communicated with state of New Mexico is that the water has returned to pre-incident levels,” Stanislaus said.
The EPA official also rejected claims that the EPA ignored the dangers of a possible spill.
“We raised the issue, and that’s the reason we were there,” Stanislaus said. “There was a cave-in with water seeping, and we were there to address that.”
Stanislaus also noted that the Animas mine and three others nearby – the Mogul, Red and Bonita and American Tunnel mines – collectively discharge about 330 million gallons of water a year, compared with the 3 million discharged in the Animas spill.
Meanwhile, the director of the Navajo Nation’s Environmental Protection Agency, Donald Benn, told the congressional panel that the EPA’s lack of communication after the spill has fostered “a culture of mistrust.” Benn said the Navajo Nation didn’t receive word about the spill until 24 hours after the incident, and that came from New Mexico’s Environment Department, not the EPA. Benn also said the EPA later assured the tribe that the spill site had been plugged, but after Navajo officials went to the site to see for themselves, “it was clear that it wasn’t.”
“It was still mustard,” Benn said, referring to the bright yellow-orange color the river took on during the spill.
Durango Mayor Dean Brookie said the 100-year-plus legacy of hard-rock mining in the Rocky Mountains “is the quiet but real catastrophe that has largely gone unnoticed by the public until now.”
Brookie said long-standing mining activity in the San Juan Mountains around Durango results in a “giant geologic game of whack-a-mole” that often causes the Animas River to run strange colors.
Brookie also sought to deflect at least some of the pressure on the EPA as a result of the spill.
“There is no denying they had their hand on the shovel during this incident, but they did not cause this spill on purpose,” Brookie said. “The EPA was at the Gold King Mine helping to address these long-standing environmental issues.”
Republican committee members complained that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy did not testify on the issue Wednesday.
“Perhaps she doesn’t have good answers,” said Smith, the committee chairman.
Smith and other Republicans also said that if the spill had been caused by a private company, punitive action by the EPA would have been swift and severe.
“There appears to be a double standard,” said Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala. “If this had been a private company, I don’t think EPA would share the same optimism and I don’t think the EPA would have handled them the same way it has handled itself. You would destroy the company.”