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EPA report links Colorado to errors that led to Gold King Mine spill

Agency releases retrospective report on 2015 spill

DENVER – The Environmental Protection Agency continues to link the state to errors that resulted in the release of 3 million gallons of toxic mining sludge into the Animas River.

In a one-year retrospective released Monday by the EPA, the federal agency is careful to underscore how the state was involved in planning that led to the blowout, which turned the Animas mustard yellow and deposited heavy metals.

“Throughout the winter and spring of 2015, EPA and CDRMS (Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety) developed plans ... During the 2014-2015 investigatory process with CDRMS, the EPA team concluded the GKM (Gold King Mine) adit was likely only partially full of water,” the report says.

An EPA team was attempting excavation work at the entrance to Gold King Mine near Silverton when debris gave way, leading to the historic spill. It is widely believed that the team should have done more to check pressure.

“Drilling a hole from above raised safety concerns and would have been significantly more difficult due to the steep terrain and the uncertainty of how stable the ground above the adit would be for drilling operations,” the EPA retrospective explains.

The state has attempted to distance itself from planning that led to the blowout.

“DRMS did not have any authority to manage, assess, or approve any work at the Gold King Mine,” former Natural Resources Director Mike King wrote in a Sept. 2, 2015, letter to the EPA, just a week after an EPA internal report was released.

The issue is likely to be highlighted as the state defends itself against a lawsuit filed by New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme Court. The state has until Aug. 22 to respond.

The spill crossed into New Mexico and Utah.

A separate case pending in a federal court in New Mexico goes after the EPA, the contractor and private mine owners. That case also could rely heavily on which parties were involved in the planning that led to the spill.

In its one-year retrospective, the EPA claims to “work together to achieve long-term solutions to prevent future releases and protect our vital water resources.”

The account does not offer much new information, largely recounting the circumstances that led to the Aug. 5, 2015, blowout, which the EPA described as an “inadvertent” release.

“EPA recognizes the impact that the GKM release had on the people of the Four Corners region,” the retrospective states. “The Agency has worked with affected residents, small businesses, universities, local governments, states and tribes in an extensive effort to assess and address the immediate and potential long-term impacts of the release on water quality in a region adversely impacted by a legacy of contaminated mine-influenced waters from abandoned and unstable hard-rock mines.”

It goes on to encourage Congress to approve a fee on the hard-rock mining industry to help cover costs associated with cleanups. The Republican-controlled Congress has expressed concerns with the proposal.

The EPA has dedicated more than $29 million to respond to the Gold King Mine spill and to provide monitoring in the area. A Superfund listing – which is likely to be approved as early as the fall – would inject millions more into cleanup efforts.

An estimated 161,000 inactive mines exist across the West, including 23,000 in Colorado. The watersheds of the San Juan Mountains contain about 400 inactive mines.

“Here we are, a year after one of the worst hard-rock mine spills in years, and yet we’re no closer to resolving the serious, ongoing threats to major watersheds, communities and some of our most vital fish and wildlife habitat,” said Jim Lyon, vice president of conservation policy for the National Wildlife Federation.

“The clock is ticking toward the next old or abandoned mine incident that will tell the same old sorry story.”


EPA report on GKM spill (PDF)

Coming this weekend

One year after the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King Mine spill, the Herald will bring readers three days of coverage about the spill’s regional impacts, the politics and what lies ahead in the next decade with the likely designation of the Bonita Peak Mining District as a Superfund site. The series will begin Friday in the Herald and at www.durangoherald.com.

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