Senators point fingers after EPA mine spill

Senators point fingers after EPA mine spill
© Getty Images

Senate Republicans and Democrats played the blame game on Wednesday at a hearing over last month’s massive mine spill in Colorado that turned a river bright orange.

While the GOP took Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthyRegina (Gina) McCarthyOvernight Energy: Trump budget slashes EPA funding | International hunting council disbands amid lawsuit | Bill targets single-use plastics Trump budget slashes EPA funding, environmental programs Overnight Energy: Trump credits economic progress to environmental rollbacks | Vote to subpoena Interior delayed by prayer breakfast | Dems hit agency for delaying energy efficiency funds MORE to task for not properly preparing for a potential spill, Democrats argued mining companies and outdated laws caused the wastewater buildup that led to the disaster.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Wednesday hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was the first time that McCarthy has faced lawmakers for her agency’s role in the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine wastewater spill, in which heavy metals were dumped into a tributary of the Animas River, closing it for days.

“It is clear EPA knew that there was likely to be a significant amount of water behind the collapsed Gold King Mine entrance and that there was a risk of a blowout,” Chairman Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Energy: Controversial Trump adviser reportedly returning to EPA | Delta aims to be first carbon neutral airline | Dem senator gives EPA D-minus on 'forever chemicals' Architect of controversial EPA policies to return as chief of staff: report Democratic senators press Interior official over proposed changes to migratory bird protections MORE (R-Okla.) said.

“Given these facts, it is unclear why EPA and the contractor did not exercise more care when working at the Gold King site.”

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who was invited to testify along with the rest of the Colorado and New Mexico Senate delegations, criticized the EPA’s immediate response to local concerns.

“Although the EPA has acknowledged the magnitude of this crisis, its initial lack of communication and coordination in events leading up to the spill are suitable for congressional oversight,” he said.

“It was not until Aug. 10 that the EPA established a unified command center in Durango. Along with confusion over EPA’s lack of notification, frustration began over the need for timely release of a simple, straightforward interpretation of the water quality monitoring data from the EPA.”

Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanSwing votes steal spotlight in marathon Trump impeachment Q&A Live coverage: Senators enter second day of questions in impeachment trial The Hill's Campaign Report: Ten days to Iowa MORE (R-Alaska) said there was a double standard, in which the EPA is holding private companies civilly or criminally liable for pollution, but going softer on itself.

“If you’re going to hold your agency to a higher standard than the private sector, you need to be aware of what you’ve done as an agency in the past,” he said.

Democrats used the hearing to call for a reform in the landmark mining law of 1872, which allows companies to mine for hard-rock minerals like gold and uranium on public land without paying royalties.

That missed revenue would help clean up mines, the Democrats said.

“What’s the revenue stream we need to put in place in order to ensure that we don’t see more accidents like this happen? We don’t have a revenue stream,” said Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyKennedy, Markey spar over experience in first Senate primary debate The Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg to face off with rivals at Nevada debate Massachusetts Democrats question deployment of Border Patrol teams to sanctuary cities MORE (D-Mass.), who noted that President Ulysses S. Grant signed that mining law.

“You can’t have this bargain-basement giveaway sale anymore,” he said. “We need a revenue stream so that we can put programs in place to ensure that we can begin to work on the worst of these sites in a much more aggressive fashion.”

McCarthy, who has taken full responsibility for the spill, defended her agency’s actions.

“This was a tragic and unfortunate incident, and EPA has taken responsibility to ensure that we clean it up appropriately,” she said.

In the aftermath of the spill, “EPA and Colorado officials informed downstream jurisdictions in Colorado within hours of the release before the plume reached drinking water intakes and irrigation diversions, and notifications to other downstream jurisdictions continued the following day, allowing for those intakes to be closed prior to the plume’s arrival,” McCarthy said.

President Obama has called on Congress to charge royalties for hard-rock mining on federal land, and there are multiple pieces of legislation in Congress aimed at doing so.