The Environmental Protection Agency typically responds to disasters caused by private interests; it doesn’t cause them. So the agency is finding itself in an unusual position of having to accept blame for the release of an estimated 1 million gallons of toxic mine water that is polluting the Animas River.
Which begs the question: Why was the EPA conducting cleanup work in the Gold King Mine rather than having the mine owner do the remediation work?
Craig Myers, on-scene coordinator for the EPA’s emergency response and preparedness team, said the EPA was assessing the environmental damage at the mine. The results of that investigation were to be used to order the necessary cleanup work by the private company.
“It is rare that we place a private company or private entity under order to do the assessment work, usually because that assessment work feeds into the information we have to have to issue an order,” Myers said Saturday.
As water percolates through the mountain from rain and snowmelt, the water takes the path of least resistance. In the case of heavily mined mountains, the path of least resistance tends to be abandoned mine shafts. But that gives mineral-rich water an easy way to escape the ground and make its way into above-ground waterways.
One way to prevent seepage is to create bulkheads, essentially a retaining wall that prevents the water from entering the mine shaft. But with multiple mine shafts in a mountain, several bulkheads may need to be built to prevent water from infiltrating each one. Build enough bulkheads to the top of the mountain, and water no longer seeps in.
In the Gold King Mine, one of the tunnels collapsed, creating a cavern that retained water. The EPA was trying to assess the enclosure and determine what needed to be done to relieve the water that was seeping from the mine.
Trapped water put pressure on the blockage, and doing nothing – or letting it sit – could have caused a natural blowout.
Instead, the EPA drilled a hole to open the mine. But there was far more water – and therefore pressure – behind the collapse than anyone anticipated.
“That whole plug could have come out by itself,” said Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management. “Typically you see it coming out of those tunnels, and it doesn’t build up 10 or 12 feet high,” he said.
While the EPA doesn’t usually cause disasters, it is experienced at dealing with them, which puts the agency in a good position to deal with it, said EPA spokeswoman Libby Faulk.
“It’s definitely a different situation for us,” she said.
Said Myers: “There aren’t many other federal agencies that have this expertise. We do this a lot. We have the knowledge to do it. We have the knowledge of how to assess the river and the capabilities to do it.”