Washington – Republicans lawmakers severely criticized during a US Senate debate, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) response towards the Gold King Mine spill into the Animas River, Colorado. The debate focused on the August 5 event and what Congress and the White House should do about the thousands of polluted mines in the West to avoid a similar situation happen in the future.

Lawmakers also discussed EPA’s Administrator Gina McCarthy role during and after the disaster, which led to the release of 3 million gallons of toxic waste through Colorado, New Mexico Utah, as well as the Southern Ute tribe and Navajo Nation.

CBS4’s Rick Sallinger with Gold King Mine owner Todd Hennis on Aug. 18, 2015. Credit: CBS

Criticism and Proposals

The hearing began with two Colorado senators, Michael Bennet, Democrat, and Cory Gardner, Republican.

“Whether the EPA knew it was likely that water was impounded behind the Gold King Mine portal and a blowout was possible… Whether the health and safety plan for the Gold King Mine work was adequate. Why did it take several days for the EPA to revise the amount of contaminated water? The agency initially said the amount was, I believe, 1 million gallons and several days later said the surge consisted of 3 million gallons. What data does the EPA have on the total amount of acid mine drainage on the Upper Animas Basin? How long has the agency been tracking the drainage and publicly measuring?” questioned Bennett during the debate.

“Although the EPA admitted responsibility there is no denying that they caused this spill and that’s entirely unacceptable. zIt’s also clear that the agency was slow to communicate as Sen. Gardner said, with local governments and didn’t obtain water quality results or bring water to farmers who needed it quickly enough. When Sen. Gardner and I traveled to Durango four days after the blowout the river was still bright orange and closed to the public.”, Gardner responded.

As proposals, both senators supported the so-called “Good Samaritan” legislation, which would allow Good Samaritans the opportunity to help with the cleaning of the abandoned mines. Under the Good Samaritan law, outside or third-party groups would be protected from liability when cleaning up a mine. However, this has raised many concerns.

Other Democrats showed support for another idea. They proposed to amend an 1872 mining law and force mining companies to pay new royalties for work they perform on public land. “Beyond the immediate cleanup of this spill, it’s high time that we overhaul our abandoned mine cleanup policies to make future disasters like this less likely,” said Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

During the initial hearing and a second one done in the afternoon, EPA’s McCarthy tried to defend herself and the federal agency for their performance after the huge waste leak. She called the spill caused by the agency “tragic and unfortunate” and claimed the agency had committed the mistake as a whole. She also said that EPA has taken responsibility to guarantee that the 3 million gallons of orange-colored waste released into Colorado’s Animas River is cleaned up.

But Republican lawmakers didn’t take it as easy as Democrats. The Republican Arizona Senator and former presidential candidate, John McCain, was particularly fired up and slammed at the agency for its poor response towards the disaster.

“Has anyone been fired for almost taking two days to notify the Navajo about the disaster?” McCain asked McCarthy. “Has anyone been fired for the Navajo’s complaint that the emergency response was inadequate?[…]In other words, you’ve done nothing,” McCain said to McCarthy.

The Spill

In August 5, EPA contractors accidentally breached a retaining wall and discharged three million gallons of wastewater from the Gold King Mine. The leak caused a major flow of orange-colored toxic waste into the Colorado’s Animas River making its ways through New Mexico, Navajo Nation and Utah.

The spill contaminated rivers with heavy metals such as lead and arsenic. However EPA claims that water tests have shown that the river quality and levels have returned to normal.

Source: Montreal Gazette