Senate panel issues subpoena to EPA over Colorado mine spill

FILE - The Animas River between Silverton and Durango within 24 hours of the spill. The river turned yellow from the oxidation of dissolved iron in the escaped waste water. Silverton, Colorado, August 6, 2015 | Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, public domain, St. George News

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA (AP) — The Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday issued a subpoena to force the Environmental Protection Agency to testify at a field hearing on a Colorado mine spill that fouled rivers in three Western states last summer.

Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Democrat Jon Tester of Montana approved the subpoena, which orders EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy or assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus to testify at the April 22 hearing in Phoenix.

Barrasso chairs the Indian Affairs panel, while Tester is the senior Democrat. The committee is investigating a 3 million gallon spill at Colorado’s abandoned Gold King Mine. The Aug. 5 spill contaminated rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, as well as in the Navajo Nation and Southern Ute Reservation.

Dan Bender, with the La Plata County Sheriff's Office, takes a water sample from the Animas River near Durango, Colo. Thursday. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that a cleanup team was working with heavy equipment Wednesday to secure an entrance to the Gold King Mine. Workers instead released an estimated 1 million gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River. Near Durango, Colo., Aug. 6, 2015 | Photo by Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP; St. George News
In this 2015 file photo, Dan Bender, with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado, takes a water sample from the Animas River near Durango, Colo. Aug. 6, 2015. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that a cleanup team was working with heavy equipment Wednesday to secure an entrance to the Gold King Mine. Workers instead released then-estimated 1 million gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River – later estimated at 3 million gallons. Near Durango, Colo., Aug. 6, 2015 | Photo by Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP; St. George News

A federal investigation blamed the EPA for the spill, saying an agency cleanup crew rushed its work, failed to consider the complex engineering involved and ended up triggering the very blowout it hoped to avoid.

Barrasso and other Republicans had threatened to force McCarthy to testify at the field hearing, but backed down after the EPA said it will make Stanislaus and another high-ranking official available.

Barrasso said he was troubled that the committee had to take the “extraordinary step of issuing a subpoena to a confirmed federal official.” The subpoena was the first issued by the Indian Affairs panel since 2004.

“During the confirmation process, Gina McCarthy agreed under oath that, if confirmed, she would appear before congressional committees with respect to her responsibilities,” Barrasso said. “Despite this sworn testimony, the EPA refused to provide any witnesses to the committee field hearing. … This sort of behavior is unbecoming of any federal official and won’t be tolerated.”

Tester said he reluctantly agreed to the subpoena to ensure that the EPA testified at the hearing.

“Regardless of how it happens, it is critical that the EPA is prepared to answer questions directly from families impacted by this spill,” Tester said in a statement. “The Gold King mine spill should have never occurred and the EPA must work with local tribes to identify the impact of their actions. This field hearing needs to be about getting answers to families impacted by the spill, and not about election-year political grandstanding.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., requested the subpoenas, saying he was outraged that the EPA initially declined to send a representative to testify in his home state.

“There is no question about who caused this devastation to the Navajo Nation – and that was individuals at the EPA,” McCain said Wednesday.

The hearing is not about the agency’s response to the incident, McCain said. “It’s about the circumstances concerning the disaster and what needs to be done to remedy and try to compensate … the people who have been contaminated by this disaster.”

Written by MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press | Reach Matthew Daly via twitter @MatthewDalyWDC

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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