#AnimasRiver: US House hearing on #GoldKing mine spill recap

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Area near Gold King mine immediately after spill — photo EPA via The Durango Herald

From the Albuquerque Journal (Michael Coleman):

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…

“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.

Mining legacy

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.”

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

Highlights from [the August 9, 2015] hearing:

Republicans on the committee don’t trust the EPA:

Republicans accused the EPA of not scrutinizing its own actions as closely it would a similar incident caused by private enterprise. Committee members were also disappointed EPA Chief Gina McCarthy declined to attend the hearing and expressed skepticism that an investigation by the Obama Administration will be independent enough to detail what happened.

Mathy Stanislaus, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, told the committee the agency has held itself itself accountable. “Most immediately, we’ve worked with the state and local communities to address the response,” Stanislaus said.

“That’s all well and good,” Smith replied. “But still a tragic spill occurred. It looks like to many of us that nobody’s been held accountable.”

The Navajo don’t trust the EPA:

State and federal water tests since the blowout have shown that water quality in the Animas River has returned to pre-spill levels. Still, Donald Benn, Executive Director of Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, told the committee the Navajo Nation didn’t trust the feds

“When [the EPA] did let us know, it wasn’t really them that told us about what happened,” said Benn. “It was actually the state of New Mexico that approached us and told us about all this information.”

The Navajo Nation is doing its own independent water tests from EPA. During Wednesday’s hearing, they asked that the federal government pay for those tests.

The mine leaked before and it still leaks:

It’s not as dramatic as the spill, but wastewater has leaked from the abandoned mine for years, and it still does after the catastrophe. EPA collects that wastewater and treats it before releasing it downstream, but no one thinks this situation is ideal over the long haul.

“The Gold King Mine was draining anywhere from 200 to 500 gallons per minute prior to the blowout,” testified Dean Brookie, mayor of Durango. “If you can, imagine this mountain as a giant geologic whack-a-mole. You plug one mine adit [entrance], and you build up the pressure of water.”

According to the EPA’s testimony, average annual water discharge from Gold King and three nearby mines reach 330 million gallons per year. That dwarfs the three million gallons released on August 5.

Colorado Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who is also a member of the House Science Committee tried to make this point during the hearing.

“There’s no real bad guy,” he said. “We’re trying to fix something that’s been 100 years in the making. And we have a lot of these in Colorado. We need help with treatment plants in Silverton.”

Talk of a revived wastewater treatment plant:

There used to be a water treatment plant in the area that handled mining wastewater. It was shut down after the last active mine in the area closed. The company that ran it, Sunnyside Gold Corp., installed bulkheads to plug the mine and nearby tunnel.

Now Silverton and county leaders are calling for a revival of that water treatment plant with congressional appropriations. But there’s no timeline for when or if that might happen.

From E&E Publishing (Manuel Quiñones):

“The Gold King [mine] was discharging pollutants before the spill and continues after the spill. That is a well-documented situation,” said Ty Churchwell, backcountry coordinator in Colorado for the conservation group Trout Unlimited…

“Most draining mines just drain,” Churchwell said in an interview. “Thousands and thousands of these draining mines all over the United States.”

Though the true scope of the abandoned mine problem around the United States is unknown, groups such as mining watchdog Earthworks and the Western Governors’ Association and agencies including EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey have some rough estimates.

The USGS database includes more than 260,000 sites labeled as past producers. Earthworks has the number closer to 500,000, mostly in the western United States.

The Government Accountability Office released a report on the issue in 2011, which said the public watchdog had developed a uniform definition of abandoned hardrock mines in 2008.

GAO said it had determined there were at least 161,000 abandoned hardrock mine sites in 12 Western states and Alaska. The agency said 33,000 of the sites had degraded the environment by contaminating waters or leaving “arsenic-contaminated” waste piles…

Alan Septoff, spokesman for Earthworks, likewise faulted the agency. “The EPA screwed up, there’s no doubt about it. But why they screwed up is instructive.”

Septoff also said the spill was inevitable even without the agency’s mistake. “Because it was draining pollution into the Animas River already and threatened to do more, it was going to happen sooner or later. If they left it alone, same thing was going to happen.”

Earthworks has long been lobbying for reform of the 1872 mining law, including charging mining companies a fee for cleaning up mines that were abandoned before modern environmental laws.

Gold King started operating in the late 1800s and ran through the early 1920s. EPA works on a polluter-pays principle, but like other such sites, Gold King has a complicated ownership and liability history.

At one point, Sunnyside Gold Corp., the owner of a nearby mine that shut down in 1991, agreed to plug its site and clean up operations in the area. But water started building up, and a treatment system ran into legal and financial troubles, EPA said. The agency was left holding the bag to prevent disaster.

Septoff said the spill has raised the alarm on the wider problem. “The Animas is shaking stuff lose, politically speaking,” he said.

He added, “There’s no dedicated funding source to clean up abandoned hardrock mines. There isn’t even money to get a good handle of how bad the problem is.”

Debate over solution

Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, has already introduced mining reform legislation (Greenwire, Feb. 12). Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) has said he will, too, once Congress reconvenes.

The National Mining Association has opposed current mining reform legislation, saying it would add too much red tape and hurt resource independence. The group has called the cleanup fee a dirt tax.

NMA spokesman Luke Popovich recently expressed support for good Samaritan legislation, which would provide groups with liability protections for pitching in to clean up water pollution from old mines.

Late in 2012, EPA released a memo meant to appease concerns. It said groups don’t need a permit for certain discharges connected with abandoned hardrock mine cleanups under the Superfund law. Former Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) was a main proponent.

But groups like Trout Unlimited and local regulators, who often help clean up contamination and hazards from abandoned mines, say the document was not enough to clear worries about getting involved with point source pollution.

“They’re the only ones that can work within the current legal framework to address the problem,” Churchwell said about the “underfunded and understaffed” EPA.

“We need to provide and find some mechanism to increase the capacity of those willing to join in the fight of cleaning up those abandoned mines,” he said, noting that there have been at least two other wastewater releases into the Animas in recent decades.

Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) have expressed their intention of introducing good Samaritan cleanup legislation in the near future. Plans were underway even before the spill (E&E Daily, June 9). But details remain unclear.

Despite bipartisan support, such a bill is by no means guaranteed passage. Some Democrats are wary of reopening discussions surrounding the Clean Water Act and sapping support from broader reform.

“It doesn’t address the funding issue,” Septoff said. “That is the real problem. It may suck the political air out of efforts to really address the problem.”

Arizona State University law professor Rhett Larson suggested in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that states create credits to encourage mining companies to clean up abandoned mines.

But groups like Earthworks have expressed opposition to companies getting liability protections. Septoff wonders what a private company would do if it had caused the Animas spill.

“There’s a historic problem, and then there’s the fact that we’re not learning from this mistake,” said Septoff. “That is the preferred solution to this.”

Beyond abandoned mines, groups, tribes and communities petitioned the administration last month to initiate rulemaking to prevent future spills from mine sites (Greenwire, Aug. 25, 2015). They also called for reform after the Mount Polley mine tailings spill in Canada, which released more than 1 billion gallons of waste.

Popovich called the rulemaking petition “transparent opportunism on the part of mining’s critics to distract policymakers away from adopting practical measures.” He said, “U.S. mines don’t need a poorer permit policy; they already have one of the most inefficient in all the world’s mining regions.”

From the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology:

Today, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing on the August 5th spill of contaminated mine wastewater from the Gold King mine into the Animas River. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a team of contractors accidentally caused the release of 3 million gallons of wastewater during an exploratory effort to find solutions for remediating the flow of toxic mine wastewater into the Animas River Watershed.

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said in her opening statement, “I believe it is important to understand what happened on August 5th and why, and explore what lessons we can learn from this event. However, we should also take this opportunity to highlight the inherently dirty, dangerous, and environmentally damaging process of metal mining.”

She continued, “I am not discounting the significance of the August 5th event at the Gold King mine or its potential environmental impact, but it is important to understand that the issue of mine drainage into the Animas Watershed did not begin last month. The EPA was acting as an environmental firefighter when they went to the Gold King mine. They were attempting to damp down a raging environmental hazard that had endangered the Animas Watershed for decades.”

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) said, “The release at Gold King Mine was terrible and impacted communities in Colorado as well as New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. I am glad the EPA is taking responsibility for the mistakes and will work with all these communities impacted by these events. But it’s important to keep this release in perspective and understand this incident points to a much larger problem that’s been 100 years in the making. Each year, the Gold King, Mogul, American Tunnel, and Red & Bonita Mines release over 330 million gallons of wastewater into the Animas River. Instead of trying to assign blame to an agency working to clean up and prevent these releases, Congress needs to help states and local communities assess the dangers of similar mines and how we can provide the resources and tools necessary to speed up remediation work to minimize the impact to our communities and our environment.”

After the hearing, Ranking Member Johnson stressed the political nature of the Majority’s interest in this spill. She said, “It is unfortunate that the Majority’s interest in the accidental release of wastewater from the Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colorado, seems to be driven almost solely by EPA’s involvement in the August 5th accident. It would be refreshing if the Majority would extend the same zeal it has shown in investigating EPA’s actions in the Silverton release to a comparable effort to hold mining corporations accountable for a long standing pattern of violating federal environmental regulations.

“In the past three years 761 U.S. metal mining facilities violated federal environmental regulations. This industry is a bigger contributor of toxic chemical releases to the environment than any other. In 2013 alone, the metal mining industry accounted for 47%–that is, almost half—of all toxic chemical releases by all industries in the United States, releasing or disposing of nearly four billion pounds of toxic chemicals.

“I suspect that the Majority’s sudden interest in investigating the environmental consequences of the Gold King Mine accident will soon fade away and we will leave unexamined the far larger environmental impact of the metal mining industry. In the meantime, local leaders like Mayor Brookie and his constituents will continue to have to cope with the environmental legacy and public health consequences of metal mining’s decades of damage to the environment.”

From the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish via The Farmington Daily Times:

A statement from Game and Fish states the department consulted with the New Mexico Environment Department and New Mexico Department of Health before lifting the catch-and-release recommendation made following the release of more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater from the mine located north of Silverton, Colo., on Aug. 5 into the Animas River.

Seventeen fish from affected areas were tested, and results showed trace amounts of metals in the fishes’ tissue that are acceptable for human consumption, Mike Sloane, chief of fisheries for Game and Fish, said in the statement.

Karl Moffatt, state Game and Fish spokesman, said the department could not respond to questions from The Daily Times by Wednesday.

The tissue samples from the fish were tested for arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and selenium.

Cory Styron, director of the city of Farmington Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department, said the announcement means the rivers are returning to normal.

“I think it clears up any misconceptions about fish in the river,” Styron said.

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Here’s an in-depth look at the spill and history of the Gold King Mine via Colorado Public Radio. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

When the EPA crew breached the debris dam inside the Gold King Mine, it did more than cause the spill. It also made the first rounds of the blame game relatively easy.

The Clean Water Act and environmental rules usually protect the agency from liability. But those protections don’t apply in instances of negligence or if the agency triggers a spill. That means the EPA — and the taxpayers funding it — are on the hook for damages resulting from the release.

It’s a responsibility the agency has so far embraced. The EPA opened a claims process to compensate individuals for any losses resulting from the spill. They also agreed to reimburse states and other local governments. New Mexico has already set aside $1.25 million for cleanup. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez says she expects to reclaim every penny from the EPA.

Those promises might seem unfair to the American taxpayer. If a company had been responsible for the incident, the EPA might have levied fines or other penalties to cover the cost of the cleanup. But because the cop in this case committed the crime, everybody pays the price. However, given the region’s history of mining pollution, it’s clear the EPA is far from the only liable party. They are only the most obviously liable. When the EPA triggered the spill, it was playing its role in a decades-long effort to clean up after corporate mining.

Click here to go to the EPA website for the spill.

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