EPA could have prevented toxic mine spill if it followed own plan

animas riverAfter weeks of prodding from various news agencies, the EPA finally released documents on Friday that showed it was aware of a ‘blowout’ risk of poisonous wastewater from the infamous Gold King mine. Even so, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only had a perfunctory plan in place if the 3 million gallons of toxic water were to actually spill. One of the action items was to build a ‘settling’ pond outside the mine before any work began, but that was never completed. After the spill, three settling ponds were created outside the mine to capture the ongoing spillage.

As first reported here, the EPA sent a team to the abandoned mine near Silverton, Colorado, on Aug. 5 to build a drainage pipe for the toxic wastewater building up inside the long-abandoned gold mine. Instead, EPA-contracted workers inadvertently unleashed a “torrent of toxic water” that ended up in the Animas and San Juan rivers, a mustard-yellow plume that traveled 300 miles and across three states.

The Associated Press (AP) is also reporting that the documents shed new light on what the EPA knew before the spill and whether it could have done more to prevent the disaster. As early as June 2014, a work order for a planned cleanup showed the mine was no longer accessible due to the entrance being partially collapsed since 1995.

The report also said, “This condition has likely caused impounding of water behind the collapse. Conditions may exist that could result in a blowout of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediment from inside the mine.” And in May 2015, an action plan created by the EPA contractor, Environmental Restoration LLC, “also noted the potential for a blowout.”

The May plan called for the construction of a spillover pond to trap any wastewater from escaping into waterways. The pond was never finished. Environmental Restoration has “confirmed its employees were present at the mine when the spill occurred,” but refused to elaborate further citing confidentiality concerns.

David Gray, an EPA spokesperson, said that “the document outlined steps that should have been followed but it would be up to pending investigations to decide if the pond should have been in place before the work started.” The document dump occurred late Friday night, where it would be less likely to get a lot of media attention ahead of the weekend. Worse, the documents were heavily redacted, including a line specifying whether “workers were required to have phones that could work at the mine’s elevation of 11,000 feet.”

The actual 71-page safety plan contained only a few lines on what to do if there was an actual spill: “Locate the source and stop the flow, begin containment and recovery of the spilled materials, and alert downstream drinking water systems as needed.” Cynthia Coffman, Colorado’s attorney general, said that after reviewing Friday night’s documents, she “remains frustrated with the EPA’s lack of answers.”

Coffman told the AP that the plan shows there was the possibility of a spill and how it would affect the delicate ecosystem, but no indication if EPA workers even followed their own plan. “I want to give the EPA the benefit of the doubt here. I really want to do that,” Coffman said. “It’s getting harder.”

This comes on the heels of another report released by the right-leaning American Action Forum, which estimates the total cost for cleaning up the man-made mess could run as high as $28 billion. So far, the EPA has spent over $3.7 million. The Daily Caller also reports that “not only will the EPA wastewater spill in Colorado cause environmental damages for decades to come, but it could also end up costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.”

That’s because the toxic plume from the abandoned mine contained “lead, arsenic, thallium and other heavy metals that can cause health problems and harm aquatic life.” After the spill, the EPA waited nearly a day before notifying downstream communities of the spill and who rely on the rivers for drinking water, fishing, and recreation. The agency has come under heavy fire for not being more forthcoming and for refusing to tell officials early on what was in the toxic soup that contaminated much of the surrounding waterways.

Poisonous water is still flowing out of the mine, albeit at a much slower pace, and a series of settling ponds have since been constructed to allow the contaminated sediments to settle out of the water before it enters a nearby creek. The EPA said that “more needs to be done” and that the potential for another blowout still remains.