EPA plans internal, external investigations of Gold King Mine disaster

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EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy meets with staff at the Unified EPA Area Command in Durango, CO. The Unified EPA Area Command is charged with coordinating the Gold King Mine incident response.

Colorado, New Mexico lawmakers ask President Obama for federal help with disaster response

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said her agency is taking full responsibility for the toxic spill from the Gold King Mine into Cement Creek, near Silverton, Colorado. As much as 3 million gallons of water polluted with heavy metals surged downstream into the Animas River and on to the San Juan River in Utah.

The spill was triggered by workers at the mine who were doing work on behalf of the EPA, and McCarthy said the agency will conduct an internal investigation, and also ask for an outside review of the incident.

“We couldn’t be more sorry and upset … and we will hold ourselves to a higher standard,” McCarthy said during her Aug. 12 press conference in Durango. She acknowledged concerns about notification procedures early during the incident and said those questions would be addressed as part of the investigations.

In the upper reaches of the Animas River, water quality is returning to pre-event levels, she said, adding that the EPA is preparing to launch boats farther downstream in the San Juan drainage to collect samples in remote reaches of the river. The EPA will also publicly release detailed results from the ongoing water quality sampling efforts during the next few days, she said.

The EPA is also delaying and reviewing remediation efforts at other mine sites to minimize the risk of any similar spill.

By Wednesday afternoon, Colorado environmental experts said the City of Durango could once again take water from the Animas to be treated for municipal supplies.

But concerns about water quality impacts remain farther downstream, where many communities rely on the Animas and San Juan rivers for drinking water, as well as for livestock and agriculture. Some of those communities don’t have any alternatives to direct withdrawals for supplies, so Colorado and New Mexico’s congressional delegations urged the Obama administration to direct all possible resources toward addressing the emergency.

In an Aug. 12 letter to President Obama, the lawmakers wrote:

“Also in the short-term, a coordinated federal response must be developed to address the lack of available potable water in many of the affected communities.  In addition to municipal water supplies, irrigation ditches and water supplies for livestock were contaminated.  The federal government needs to work with state, tribal, and local governments to provide and pay for supplemental water as needed for both drinking water supplies and agricultural operations.”

The lawmakers stressed the need to improve the speed of water quality and sediment testing and the communication about that testing; address the availability of potable water; create a claims reimbursement process to cover all costs incurred by states, counties, tribes, and local municipalities, as well as local businesses and agricultural producers; to review any ongoing projects in the area that are similar in nature to those at the Gold King Mine; and to take a look at the creation of a water treatment plant in the Upper Animas River to remove heavy metals from the watershed at its source.

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