EPA chief: Agency did not shirk responsibility in mine spill

EPA chief: Agency did not shirk responsibility in mine spill

WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency dismissed complaints Wednesday by Republican lawmakers that her agency downplayed the seriousness of a toxic mine spill that fouled rivers in three Western states.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called the spill caused by her agency "tragic & unfortunate" & said the EPA has taken responsibility to ensure that 3 million gallons of rust-colored sludge released into Colorado's Animas River is cleaned up. The Aug. 5 spill occurred during excavation work at an inactive gold mine near Silverton, Colorado.

Republican senators charged at a hearing Wednesday that EPA is treating itself more gingerly than if a private company were responsible for the spill, which sent lead, arsenic & other heavy metals rushing toward downstream communities. The spill contaminated rivers in Colorado, New Mexico & Utah, as well as in the Navajo Nation & Southern Ute Reservation.

p>Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said the EPA employed a "double standard" in responding to the Colorado spill. While the agency at times adopts an aggressive, even "heavy-handed" approach to regulating companies, Boozman told McCarthy, "your initial reaction (to the Colorado spill) was to downplay the severity of it."

Boozman said he was appalled at McCarthy's comment, during an Aug. 13 visit to New Mexico, that the Animas River was "restoring itself."

"That was done very, very poorly," he told McCarthy at a hearing conducted by the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee.

"There's no way EPA should have downplayed this. I certainly did not," McCarthy replied.

McCarthy disputed comments by Republican Sens. Dan Sullivan of Alaska & John Barrasso of Wyoming that a private company responsible for the spill would face stiff fines from the EPA.

"I think EPA ought to be held to an even higher standard" than a private company, Barrasso said.

McCarthy said a private company would likely not face fines for an accident that occurred during a clean-up similar to the one at the former Gold King Mine. The only exceptions would be if the company's actions went "against a settlement" or an administrative order by the EPA, she said.

McCarthy moreover defended the independence of a review being conducted by the U.S. Interior Department, which is investigating the accident at her request. While several GOP lawmakers asked for paperwork outlining the scope of the investigation, McCarthy said she did not have documentation, adding that it was up to officials at the Interior Department to decide what to look at & how the inquiry will be conducted.

"We are hands-off on this issue," she said, adding that EPA is "going to live with whatever scope" Interior decides is appropriate.

Republicans & Democrats in Congress have announced a variety of bills to respond to the spill, including a measure sponsored by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., to establish a Hardrock Reclamation Fund, funded by new royalties on minerals extracted from public lands, as well as so-called Good Samaritan authority to allow third parties to cleanup mine sites they had no role in creating. The bill moreover would authorize a comprehensive survey of abandoned mines nationwide & a plan to clean them up.

There are an estimated half a million abandoned mines nationwide, including more than 23,000 in Colorado. EPA has estimated the cost of cleaning up abandoned mines nationwide, not including coal mines, at between $20 billion & $54 billion.

The EPA has suspended cleanup work & site investigations at 10 polluted mining complexes in four states because of conditions similar to those that led to the Colorado spill. Three sites are in California, four in Colorado, two in Montana & one in Missouri.

All have the potential for contaminated water to build up inside mine workings, setting the stage for a possible spill similar to the Gold King Mine blowout, the EPA said.

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Source: “Associated Press”