US agency knew of risk of tainted wa­ter at gold mine


U.S. of­fi­cials knew of the po­ten­tial for a cat­a­strophic “blowout” of toxic waste­water from an in­ac­tive gold mine, yet ap­peared to have only a cur­sory plan to deal with such an event when gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors trig­gered 11.4-mil­lion­liter spill, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­nal doc­u­ments re­leased by the United States En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA).

The EPA re­leased the doc­u­ments late Fri­day fol­low­ing prod­ding from The As­so­ci­ated Press and other media or­ga­ni­za­tions.

The Aug. 5 spill came as work­ers ex­ca­vated the en­trance to the idled Gold King Mine near Sil­ver­ton in the west-cen­tral state of Colorado, ac­ci­den­tally un­leash­ing a tor­rent of pent-up, toxic wa­ter that fouled rivers in three states.

Among the doc­u­ments is a June 2014 work or­der for a planned cleanup that noted that the old mine had not been ac­ces­si­ble since 1995, when the en­trance par­tially col­lapsed.

“This con­di­tion has likely caused im­pound­ing of wa­ter be­hind the col­lapse,” the re­port says. “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, which con­tain con­cen­trated heavy met­als.”

A May 2015 ac­tion plan for the mine also noted the po­ten­tial for a blowout. The plan was pro­duced by En­vi­ron­men­tal Restora­tion LLC, a pri­vate con­trac­tor work­ing for the EPA.

It was not clear what, if any, ad­di­tional pre­cau­tions were taken to pre­pare for such a re­lease. EPA spokes­woman Melissa Har­ri­son said Satur­day she could not im­me­di­ately an­swer ques­tions about the mat­ter.

A 71-page safety plan for the site pro­duced by En­vi­ron­men­tal Restora­tion in­cluded only a few lines de­scrib­ing steps to be taken in the event of a spill: Lo­cate the source and stop the flow if it could be done safely, be­gin con­tain­ment and re­cov­ery of the spilled ma­te­ri­als, and alert down­stream san­i­tary dis­tricts and drink­ing wa­ter sys­tems as needed.

There are at least three on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions into ex­actly how EPA trig­gered the dis­as­ter, which tainted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah with lead, ar­senic and other con­tam­i­nants. The toxic plume trav­eled roughly 480 kilo­me­ters (300 miles) to Lake Pow­ell on the Ari­zona-Utah state bor­der.

EPA says its wa­ter test­ing has shown con­tam­i­na­tion lev­els have since been re­turn­ing to pre-spill lev­els, though ex­perts warn the heavy met­als have likely sunk and mixed with bot­tom sed­i­ments that could some­day be stirred back up.

The doc­u­ments re­leased by the agency do not in­clude any ac­count of what hap­pened im­me­di­ately be­fore or af­ter the spill. The waste­water flowed into a trib­u­tary of the An­i­mas and San Juan rivers, turn­ing them a sickly yel­low-or­ange color.

Much of the text in the doc­u­ments re­leased Fri­day was redacted by EPA of­fi­cials.

Elected of­fi­cials in af­fected states and else­where have been highly crit­i­cal of the EPA’s re­sponse to the spill. Among the unan­swered ques­tions is why it took the agency nearly a day to in­form lo­cal of­fi­cials in down­stream com­mu­ni­ties that rely on the rivers for drink­ing wa­ter.

Colorado’s top le­gal of­fi­cer Cyn­thia Coff­man on Satur­day be­rated the EPA for what she called a “late Fri­day night doc­u­ment dump” and said the redac­tion of key facts would heighten public sus­pi­cions.

“These doc­u­ments fly in the face of (EPA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Gina) McCarthy’s state­ments ac­cept­ing full re­spon­si­bil­ity,” Coff­man posted on Face­book.

Law­maker La­mar Smith, who chairs the U. S. lower house’s science, space and tech­nol­ogy com­mit­tee, said the agency “has an obli­ga­tion to be more forth­com­ing” and called for McCarthy to ap­pear be­fore his com­mit­tee next month.

En­vi­ron­men­tal Restora­tion posted a brief state­ment last week con­firm­ing its em­ploy­ees were present at the mine when the spill oc­curred. The com­pany de­clined to pro­vide more de­tails, say­ing that to do so would vi­o­late “con­trac­tual con­fi­den­tial­ity obli­ga­tions.”

A com­pany dis­patcher said no one was avail­able for com­ment Satur­day.

The St. Louis, Mis­souri-based com­pany bills it­self as the largest provider of emer­gency ser­vices for the EPA and is the agency’s prime con­trac­tor across most of the U.S.

The EPA has not yet pro­vided a copy of its con­tact with the firm.

The spill’s af­ter­math has cost the EPA US$3.7 mil­lion through Thurs­day, ac­cord­ing to the agency.

Toxic wa­ter con­tin­ues to flow out of the mine, although the EPA built a se­ries of ponds so con­tam­i­nated sed­i­ments can set­tle out be­fore the wa­ter en­ters a nearby creek that feeds into the An­i­mas River.

The agency said more work was needed to make sure there are no ad­di­tional re­serves of tainted wa­ter that could lead to another surge of con­tam­i­na­tion. Those ef­forts will in­clude the re­moval of any block­ages still hold­ing back wa­ter in­side the mine, ac­cord­ing to the EPA.


Wa­ter flows through a se­ries of re­ten­tion ponds built to con­tain and fil­ter out heavy met­als and chem­i­cals from the Gold King mine waste­water ac­ci­dent, in the spill­way about 1/4 mile down­stream from the mine, out­side Sil­ver­ton, Colorado, Aug. 12.

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