Lawmakers on the U.S. House science committee sparred with a top official from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official over who is to blame for the Aug. 5 mine water spill at the Gold King Mine in Colorado.
The two-hour meeting on Sept. 9 was the first of several hearings Congress has planned in September to investigate the Colorado accident, and the initial discussion, The Denver Post reported.
The hearing, according to the Post, pitted Republican lawmakers blasting the EPA and the EPA trying to put the accident into a perspective more favorable to its side.
Chairman Lamar Smith, (R-TA), opened the hearing by slamming the EPA for not being careful enough in dealing with the Gold King Mine and triggering the release of 3 million gallons of toxic waste that affected Colorado, New Mexico and Utah as well as the Navajo Nation.
“Had the EPA exercised the same care in making their decisions as an ordinary prudent person, this whole incident could have been avoided,” he said.
Later, he said the EPA had ignored warnings of the danger. “There had to be negligence or the spill would not have occurred,” he said.
Other lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., accused the EPA of not been transparent enough in releasing information and argued that the federal government is being held to a less-stringent standard than private companies involved in environmental disasters, such as BP and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In response, Mathy Stanislaus, an assistant EPA administrator who handles clean-up operations, tried to put the disaster in perspective.
While the release of 3 million gallons of toxic waste was a “tragic and unfortunate incident,” he noted the Gold King Mine and three other nearby mines were discharging several times that amount each year: to the tune of 330 million gallons.
It was the reason the EPA was doing work at the site in the first place.
“By 2014, the EPA was working with the state of Colorado to take action at the Gold King Mine to address both the potential for catastrophic release and the ongoing adverse water quality impacts caused by the significant mine discharges into the Upper Animas,” Stanislaus said in prepared remarks.
It was a point seconded by Dean Brookie, mayor of Durango.
According to the EPA, there are roughly 23,000 former mines in Colorado. That includes about 400 abandoned or inactive mines within the watersheds of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado.
Leakage from many of these sites is the “quiet but real catastrophe that has been unnoticed by the public until now,” Brookie said.
The problem doesn’t clear the EPA of responsibility for the Gold King Mine disaster — “there is no denying they had their hands on the shovel,” he said — but he added that the agency was working to deal with the underlying problem.
“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,” he concluded.