- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 11, 2015

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy broke her silence Tuesday on the agency’s wastewater spill from Colorado’s Gold King Mine by saying she was “deeply sorry,” but that wasn’t enough to stave off a demand for congressional oversight into the accident and the agency’s fumbled reaction.

Amid rising anger and confusion over the extent and damage caused by the spill to waterways across the West, Sen. Cory Gardner, Colorado Republican, called for congressional hearings “to examine EPA’s insufficient response and to ensure that the EPA is held to the same recovery standards as the private sector.”

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, a fierce critic of the agency over its climate policies, said Tuesday he also is closely monitoring EPA’s spill response.

“This has and will continue to lead to significant economic damage to local businesses, farmers, tribes and residents,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “I will work within the committee and with my colleagues in Congress to ensure the EPA is held accountable to this grave incident and that those impacted are provided the necessary support to move forward.”

In one significant respect, the EPA will not be held to the same standard as those in the private sector: As a government agency, the EPA cannot be fined, unlike companies such as BP, which was hit with a $5.5 billion penalty for violating the Clean Water Act after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.

“Sovereign immunity. The government doesn’t fine itself,” said Thomas L. Sansonetti, former assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s division of environment and natural resources.

What the EPA can be expected to cover is the cost of the clean-up and compensation for the damage caused, funding that would have to be appropriated by Congress, meaning that the taxpayers will foot the bill.

EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said Tuesday that the agency has already received a number of claims seeking compensation for damages stemming from the Aug. 5 release of acidic wastewater, but said she did not know the exact number.

“It’s similar to the BP situation, because you’ve got rafting companies that couldn’t raft, you’ve got kayakers that couldn’t kayak, you’ve got ranchers that didn’t want spoiled water being drunk by their cows,” said Mr. Sansonetti, who served under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005.

In remarks ahead of a previously scheduled address before Resources for the Future, a Washington energy and environmental research group, a grim and contrite Ms. McCarthy emphasized that the EPA is “working tirelessly to respond, and we’ve committed a full review of exactly what happened to ensure it can never happen again.”

“It is really a tragic and very unfortunate incident, and EPA is taking responsibility to ensure that the spill is cleaned up,” she said. “It pains me to no end that this is happening.”

Ms. McCarthy is scheduled to visit Wednesday the Animas River in Durango, Colorado, and the San Juan River in Farmington, New Mexico.

At Tuesday’s press briefing from Durango, EPA officials said they are continuing to test water samples taken at the mine site for heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and copper and posting results at epa.gov/goldkingmine.

EPA Region 8 administrator Shaun McGrath said that the latest samples taken from Colorado, where the spill originated at the abandoned mine near Silverton, continue to show improvement as the current pushes the vivid orange plume downstream to New Mexico.

Jared Blumenfeld, EPA Region 9 administrator, said the plume was about eight river miles from Lake Powell in Utah as of Tuesday afternoon.

The Animas River flowing through Durango is already clearing from the 3-million-gallon spill, with orange residue now visible only along the banks, but the metallic waste will still be present in the sediment and sometimes stirred back into the river for years to come, officials warned.

He confirmed that the mine continues to discharge wastewater at a rate of 500 to 700 gallons per minute, but that the release is now being captured and treated in settling ponds before it enters the Animas River.

EPA officials in Colorado have come under fire for waiting 24 hours before notifying others of the spill, saying that they thought it was small enough to be confined to the mine area.

Three Colorado lawmakers — Sens. Gardner and Michael Bennet and Rep. Scott Tipton — sent a letter Tuesday asking for the agency to “establish and publicly disclose its plan for the near-term cleanup and mitigation of the Gold King Mine release.”

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