EPA faces grilling over toxic mine spill

EPA faces grilling over toxic mine spill
© Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will face tough questions as lawmakers return and examine the mine waste spill it caused in Colorado.

Four congressional committees have planned hearings on the Aug. 5 spill of heavy metal sludge into a tributary of the Animas River near Silverton, Colo.

The incident at the long-closed Gold King Mine turned the river bright orange and brought a wave of unwanted attention on the EPA as Republicans, the agency’s opponents and local residents criticized officials for what they saw as hypocrisy and a lack of transparency.

Those criticisms are likely to intensify over the next two weeks as congressional Republicans try to assign blame for the high-profile disaster.

The spill came at an extremely important time for the administration, a mere two days after President Obama rolled out the first carbon dioxide limits for power plants, the key piece of his second-term push against climate change.

The timing has not been lost on Republicans, who are using the incident to embarrass the EPA and prove their long-held belief that the agency is not equipped to take on the wide-ranging regulatory agenda it set out.

The House Science Committee will get the first crack with a hearing Sept. 9, only a day after Congress returns from its August recess.

“After spilling millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the Animas River, the EPA has an obligation to be forthcoming about what went wrong and potential long-term impacts on local communities,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the committee’s chairman, said in a statement.

Mathy Stanislaus, head of the EPA’s solid waste and emergency response office, will represent the agency.

The other witnesses at the event will represent Environmental Restoration, the EPA contractor responsible for the spill; the Navajo Nation, whose reservation is downstream from the spill; and the town of Durango, Colo., which is also downstream.

Smith is an outspoken opponent of the EPA’s agenda, repeatedly questioning the science behind its regulations on climate change and pollution.

The EPA already angered Smith when it missed a deadline he set in August for certain documents related to the attempted cleanup at the Gold King Mine.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold its own hearing on the spill Sept. 16, followed the next day by a joint hearing of the House Oversight Committee and House Natural Resources Committee.

“It is important for this committee, the agency, and the public to know what exactly went wrong leading up to Aug. 5 and in the days that followed,” Sen. Jim InhofeJames InhofeSenators urge Trump to do right thing with arms sales to Taiwan McCain strikes back as Trump’s chief critic Turbulence for Trump on air traffic control MORE (R-Okla.), another strong opponent of Obama’s environmental agenda and chairman of the environment panel, said in a statement.

“The hearing will examine the immediate and long-term environmental and economic impacts to the states, local communities, and Indian tribes as a result of the spill.”

EPA head Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyTrump’s budget prioritizes polluters over people Trump pulls US out of Paris deal: What it would mean Regulations, farmers and the law MORE is the sole witness scheduled so far to speak to the Senate panel.

She will be joined by Interior Secretary Sally JewellSally JewellOutdoor gear companies take on Trump Overnight Regulation: Trump administration lifts Obama freeze on federal coal mining Trump administration ends Obama's coal-leasing freeze MORE the following day for the hearing in front of the House committees. Jewell’s responsibilities include the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Reclamation, which is conducting an investigation into the spill.

“Despite knowing that the spill of mine waste was an imminent possibility for more than one year, EPA has struggled to respond to the disaster,” Oversight Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzSenators urge Trump to do right thing with arms sales to Taiwan Chaffetz calls for ,500 legislator housing stipend Juan Williams: Trump refills the swamp MORE (R-Utah) and Natural Resources Chairman Rob BishopRob BishopPuerto Rico’s statehood win was a ruse Another deal on power debt won’t help Puerto Rico's economy Interior secretary: Trump should reduce size of Utah national monument MORE (R-Utah), wrote in an Aug. 31 letter.

The hearings fit Republican efforts to undermine the EPA, said Joel Mintz, a professor at Nova Southeastern University Law Center and scholar at the liberal Center for Progressive Reform.

“This will probably be something that they’ll use as ammunition to embarrass the agency,” he said.

“Their point of view is always essentially that the agency is doing unnecessary work, that they’re harming the economy, that costs jobs, and they’ll try and use this set of hearings as a vehicle for spotlighting their views and just generally embarrassing EPA,” Mintz continued.

“Trying to prove they’re incompetent, anything they can do to tarnish the agency in the public eye, that’s their goal.”

Congressional Democrats have been less vocal than Republicans since the spill, but have also indicated they want to get to the bottom of what happened.

The hearings could give Democrats a chance to shine a light on the thousands of abandoned mines in the west that could pose similar dangers of blowouts and leaks into waterways, among other risks.

“The Gold King mine that polluted the Animas is one of some 500,000 abandoned mines pocking the landscape of the American West, some 23,000 in Colorado alone,” NRDC President Rhea Suh wrote in a recent blog post.

“Many thousands of these mines were shuttered and left behind decades before the Clean Water Act and other national safeguards were put in place to protect our rivers and streams.”

A likely focus of the hearings will be an initial report from the EPA’s internal investigation. That report blamed the blowout event on the fact that federal and state workers did not know the correct pressure of the fluid behind the backfill they were moving, despite multiple tests that show the pressure was low.

“Despite the available information suggesting low water pressure behind the debris at the Adit entrance, there was, in fact, sufficiently high pressure to cause the blowout,” the internal report stated. An adit is an opening to an underground mine.

“Because the pressure of the water in the Adit was higher than anticipated, the precautions that were part of the work plan turned out to be insufficient.”