EPA knew of ‘blowout’ risk for tainted water at gold mine

Bob Fredriksen, left, CH2M water operations manager, and David Sypher, public works director, look at the water pumping, Thursday, at the Animas Pump Station No. 2 in Flora Vista, N.M. The quality of San Juan River water on the Navajo Nation has returned to what it was before a spill at a Colorado gold mine sent toxic sludge into the waterway, federal officials said Thursday. Flora Vista, New Mexico, Aug. 20, 2015 | Photo by Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP; St. George News | Photo altered / stretched at left and right sides

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA  (AP) — U.S. Environmental Protection Agency managers were aware of the potential for a catastrophic “blowout” at an inactive Colorado mine that could release large volumes of wastewater laced with toxic heavy metals, according to documents released by the agency.

In this Aug. 18, 2015, photo, Joe Ben Jr., Shiprock Chapter House Farm Board representative, tests the water from tanks at the Chief Hill location in Shiprock, New Mexico. The quality of San Juan River water on the Navajo Nation has returned to what it was before a spill at a Colorado gold mine sent toxic sludge into the waterway, federal officials said Thursday. Shiprock, News Mexico, Aug. 18, 2015 | Photo by Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP; St. George News
In this Aug. 18, 2015, photo, Joe Ben Jr., Shiprock Chapter House Farm Board representative, tests the water from tanks at the Chief Hill location in Shiprock, New Mexico. The quality of San Juan River water on the Navajo Nation has returned to what it was before a spill at a Colorado gold mine sent toxic sludge into the waterway, federal officials said Thursday. Shiprock, News Mexico, Aug. 18, 2015 | Photo by Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP; St. George News

EPA released the documents following prodding from The Associated Press and other media organizations. EPA and contract workers accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater on Aug. 5 as they inspected the idled Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado.

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. The plan appears to have been produced by Environmental Restoration, a private contractor working for EPA.

“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 subsequent May 2015 action plan for the mine also notes the potential for a blowout.

It was not clear what additional precautions were taken to prepare for such a release, and the EPA did not immediately respond to 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 travelled roughly 300 miles to Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah 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, which the agency released about 10:30 p.m. eastern time Friday, 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.

Elected officials in affected states and elsewhere have been highly critical of the EPA’s initial response.


Read more: Utah attorney general tours Gold King Mine spill site


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.

Communication problems have persisted in the spill’s aftermath, according to U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

“Weeks after the spill, families and businesses who depend on the Animas River continue to deal with uncertainty and limited information,” Smith said Friday, as he called for EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to appear before his committee for a hearing scheduled next month. “The EPA has an obligation to be forthcoming about what went wrong.”

Much of the text in the documents released Friday was redacted by EPA officials. Among the items blacked out is the line in a 2013 safety plan for the Gold King job that specifies whether workers were required to have phones that could work at the remote site, which is more than 11,000 feet up a mountain.

In the wake of the spill, it has typically taken days to get any detailed response from the agency, if at all.

EPA Press Secretary Melissa Harrison said Saturday that the agency has been inundated with media inquiries and “worked diligently to respond to them.”

On its website, contractor 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 detail, saying that to do so would violate “contractual confidentiality obligations.”

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.

In this Aug. 12, 2015 file photo, water flows through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals from the Gold King mine chemical accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colorado. Internal documents released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday, Aug. 21, show managers at the EPA were aware of the potential for a catastrophic "blowout" at an abandoned mine that could release "large volumes" of wastewater laced with toxic heavy metals. Silverton, Colorado, Aug. 12, 2015 | AP Photo by Brennan Linsley; St. George News
In this Aug. 12, 2015 file photo, water flows through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals from the Gold King mine chemical accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colorado. Internal documents released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday, Aug. 21, show managers at the EPA were aware of the potential for a catastrophic “blowout” at an abandoned mine that could release “large volumes” of wastewater laced with toxic heavy metals. Silverton, Colorado, Aug. 12, 2015 | AP Photo by Brennan Linsley; St. George News

The EPA has not yet provided a copy of its contact with the firm. On the March 2015 cost estimate for the work released Friday, the agency blacked out all the dollar figures.

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

To deal with the toxic water from the mine, which continues to flow out of the site, the EPA built a series of containment ponds so that 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 inside Gold King that could lead to another surge of contamination. Those efforts will include the removal of any blockages inside the mine that are holding back water, according to the EPA.

That work is ongoing and no timeline has been provided for its completion.

Written by MICHAEL BIESECKER, Associated Press, and MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press; Brown reported from Billings, Montana.

Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at http://Twitter.com/mbieseck

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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10 Comments

  • fun bag August 22, 2015 at 11:53 am

    epa must have trusted this contractor to do the job properly and it seems they probably tried to take shortcuts to save a buck–something we are not surprised to see from private contractors. the question is, will this private firm be shielded from all liability because they were under epa contract? kind of reminds me of the corrupt contractors we used in IRAQ…

  • fun bag August 22, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    epa needs more accountability in their business dealings, but then again so do wallstreet banks, but we never hear you mormon republicans bringing that up because your fox news doesn’t talk about it…idiots…

    • native born new mexican August 22, 2015 at 1:00 pm

      I told you so fun bag! Told you so! Told you so! These are VERY bad people. They were working diligently to get information out to the press said the secretary. I can just hear it- ” get those papers in the shredder now! Check everyone’s stories. Be sure they all tell the same lie! On and and on. Is it any wonder people have absolutely no trust in government? The qualification to work for government is to be a real scum bag. I have nothing but disgust for anyone who tries to say government is working in the best interest of the people. Never and not ever!

      • fun bag August 22, 2015 at 1:22 pm

        well NM, gov’t full of scum bags and private sector full of scum bags. Having regulation works better than a free-for-all raping of the environment by corporates. It’s all about attempting to find a balance. unfortunately a rapidly expanding population calls for never-ending economic expansion which calls for more destruction of wildland. The best that can be done is too slow the destruction and minimize poisons and things that industry will always create. So NM you say just “defund the whole gubmunt and EPA”… explain how you would control destruction of lands then?…

      • fun bag August 22, 2015 at 1:25 pm

        obviously the state of UT would be inept at it because of mormon republican ideology of “use it all up while the gettins good”. They proved this time and time again… a few article back they let them open a big open pit tar-sands mine? the absolute dirtiest for of petroleum extraction…sounds great right?

        • mesaman August 22, 2015 at 7:04 pm

          What is that smell? Oh, scummie. Didn’t realize you were here. Want to use my frequent flyer miles to get out of the area? Glad to help.

        • aviatormh August 22, 2015 at 8:23 pm

          Hey sagbag, I was concerned that you would comment without bad mouthing mormans but alas you didn’t disappoint

      • ladybugavenger August 22, 2015 at 1:29 pm

        Amen

  • Dexter August 22, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    I work in the best interest of my people and I don’t charge them 10 % of their income

    • arrowone August 23, 2015 at 6:38 am

      Just the opposite FunBagist…..I’m not Mormom but it’s been on Fox news probably more because of the EPA loving liberal stations. You always have some crap to add and you think you are something else. Pathetic.

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