WASHINGTON (CN) – Top brass for the Environmental Protection Agency faced harsh questioning Thursday from Congress about last month’s toxic Colorado mine spill.
The House Committee on Natural Resources convened the hearing after EPA workers accidentally breached a dam of contaminated water on Aug. 5, while evaluating the conditions of the Gold King Mine in Colorado.
After severely underestimating the extent of the damage, the EPA later reported that the breach spilled 3 million gallons of toxic water into the Animas River.
For committee chair Rep. Rob Bishop, the EPA let itself skate where it crucified others.
“If an individual or a private company had done this, EPA would have already have made sure there was hell to pay,” the Utah Republican said during opening remarks.
Bishop argued in his opening remarks that the EPA trampled the Endangered Species Act in failing to contact Fish and Wildlife when it first believed a major blowout was possible.
“EPA documents show that the agency was aware, as early as June 2014, that a massive blowout was possible,” Bishop said.
Yet instead of testing the pressure of the built-up water, the EPA dug around it with heavy machinery, Bishop said.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy denied this charge, testifying that the EPA was there in the first place to try to mitigate the issue. She noted that owners of abandoned mines largely escape responsibility for cleaning up the messes they leave behind.
“That’s why we were there, because there was no ability over the past 20, 30, 40 years to really effectively address this,” McCarthy fired back.
There are roughly 160,000 other abandoned mines that the EPA must evaluate, McCarthy added.
Colorado is home to 23,000 of them, and there are 400 in the upper Animus River region alone. McCarthy said the EPA has limited funds to adequately address the problem.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., told the committee that the EPA has long been working with local communities on water quality and with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on mine contamination.
“The EPA and the state of Colorado were there to clean up someone else’s mess,” Grijalva said.
Earlier this year, Grijalva proposed the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act, which would create a fund for cleaning up abandoned mines.
Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., said during the hearing that his state faces continual threats from acid-mine drainage from abandoned mines.
“The fact is that mining companies have not been held responsible for the toxic devastation they left behind,” he said. “But EPA and states are being forced to clean up this legacy of leakage with resources that are completely inadequate.”
McCarthy testified that the EPA has an environmental fund of about $500 million for remedial clean up.
A polluter-pays fee on hard-rock mining would be a good way for Congress to help fund clean-up efforts, she added.
Some lawmakers hinted during the hearing at reauthorization of the 1977 Abandoned Mine Land program, which will expire in 2021.
Nearly $10 billion is needed to clean up existing abandoned mines, many of which will remain after the program expires, according to a report the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center issued in July.
Rep. Louie Gohmer, R-Texas, joined in the chorus of congressmen who criticized the EPA as above the law. McCarthy also faced tough questions about why the agency took so long to notify the Navajo Nation about the spill.
“It took the USEPA almost two full days to notify us,” Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said in written testimony. “We view this as a violation of the government-to-government relationship between the federal government and the Navajo Nation.”
Begaye said the media received better and faster information from the EPA than the Navajo Nation. “The New York Times reported the spill hours before USEPA provided the nation with notice of the spill,” he wrote.
Demonstrating a lack of transparency, the EPA also refused to take Begaye and others to the point of release of the toxic water, he said.
Begaye also accused the agency of downplaying the magnitude of the risk, issuing incomplete reports about released contaminants.
McCarthy said the EPA could do better with notification.
“We are taking responsibility and we will do that in the long term,” McCarthy said, adding that “this was not a compliance issue, this was a response action to deal with … contamination that EPA wasn’t the responsible party for.”
McCarthy insisted that the EPA hasn’t let itself off the hook.
“If we did anything wrong we will be fully accountable for that,” she said. “But in the meantime we have to make good to the Navajo, to the Southern Ute, to the Ute Mountain Ute and to the states that are involved in this.”
The EPA has conducted its own internal-affairs review of the incident through the EPA’s inspector general, and has asked the Department of Interior for an independent investigation in an effort to identify what went wrong and what could have been done differently, McCarthy said. The DOI reported is expected in October, she added.
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