Congress Prepares Probes into EPA Spill

Colorado's Animas River. Image via Flickr

The Environmental Protection Agency will have to answer tough questions from lawmakers after a disastrous chemical spill sent three million gallons of toxic sludge pouring into a pristine Colorado river.

At least four Congressional committees are considering hearings on the August 5 incident, in which toxic wastewater surged out of the Gold King Mine near Durango, Colo. Workers excavating loose material in an effort to treat the metal-laden water and assess the feasibility of remediating the site caused a rupture in the mine tunnel, sending a mustard-colored sludge into the Animas River.

The spill has contaminated rivers and lakes in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona with lead and arsenic. Three states and the Navajo Nation have declared a state of emergency.

The incident is another blow to the embattled EPA, which has faced unparalleled criticism from Republicans in Congress this year over proposed new rules governing power plant emissions, ozone limits and the Renewable Fuel Standard. The agency has also been accused of subjecting itself to undue influence from environmental groups, and failing to fully disclose the studies and science it relies on to craft new regulations.

As over 200 EPA employees and contractors scramble to clean up the mess in the West, the GOP-led Congress is preparing its own response.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is working to schedule an oversight hearing on the spill when Congress returns from its August recess, said Kristina Baum, a committee spokeswoman.

“My committee is closely monitoring and conducting oversight of EPA’s toxic water spill,” panel chairman James Inhofe (R–Okla.) said in a statement after EPA provided the committee with a briefing of the incident last week. “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.”

The Senate Indian Affairs committee may also get involved. Spokesman Mike Danylak said Sen. John Barrasso (R–Wyo.), the committee chairman, has spoken with the Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and is “very concerned about the situation.”

“It’s time for the EPA to step up and do its part in fixing the problem it created,” Barrasso said in a statement Friday.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) promised his own oversight as the spill threatens federal and tribal lands under the committee’s jurisdiction.

“In the coming weeks and months, the Committee will be conducting extensive oversight over the causes and the short-term and long-term effects of this serious situation,” Bishop said in his own statement. A committee spokesman would not say when those hearings would commence.

House Science Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R–Texas) expressed similar disdain in a letter last week to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. “It is concerning that the agency charged with ensuring that the nation’s waters are clean is reportedly responsibly for the toxic water spill at Gold King Mine,” Smith wrote.

Committee spokeswoman Laura Crist said the panel will continue to investigate the events leading up to to the spill and potential effects to those in the areas effected. “That may include possible hearings in the near future,” she said.
Off the Hill, EPA’s Office of the Inspector General announced Monday it will open its own investigation into the incident.
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