Aug 28, 2015 - 2:15pm

EPA’s Colorado River Spill Was ‘Likely Inevitable,’ But Agency Didn’t Prepare for Disaster

Senior Editor, Digital Content


Yellow water in the Animas River after EPA's Gold King Mine spill.

EPA released a summary of an internal investigation at the Gold King Mine in Colorado, and the agency comes out looking as bad as the orange water that flowed through the Animas River.

“In reviewing the pertinent documents provided, interviews conducted, visiting the site and evaluating the photo logs,” investigators conclude the spill “was likely inevitable.”

The report reads:

The inability to obtain an actual measurement of the mine water pressure behind the entrance blockage seems to be a primary issue at this particular site.

Why weren’t measurements taken before digging into the mine?

According to the report, EPA felt measuring the water pressure wasn’t necessary because it “would have been quite costly and require much more planning and multiple field seasons to accomplish.” Such data “could have been useful in determining possible response scenarios for unexpected releases.”

If a spill was inevitable, shouldn’t EPA have been prepared to contain it instead of allowing a river popular with tourists and important to farmers and local residents to be filled with 3 million gallons of toxic water?

One would think, but not if you’re EPA.

The report states, “Given the maps and information known about this mine, a worst case scenario estimate could have been calculated and used for planning purposes.” Instead, EPA took only cursory steps in preparing for the worst [emphasis mine]:

The Emergency Action Plan (EAP) included with the site plan did not anticipate or plan for the volume or pressure encountered and contained only limited emergency procedures in case of a mine blowout. This lack of information about a blowout in the EAP could indicate the low expectation of its occurrence by the contractor and reviewers.

Imagine if a private company had done something similar and this was their explanation. Would EPA show it any mercy?

Now, think about this knowing that EPA wants to regulate nearly every single body of water in the United States under its Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule. It wants to effectively be the ultimate decider of what farmers, businesses, communities, and home owners can and can’t do with their land if it might have some effect on a body of water.

An agency that just made a 3 million gallon toxic mistake wants more authority?  The Animas River spill shows EPA is incapable of effectively protecting the waters it already has jurisdiction over.

If competence builds trust, then for EPA a lot of it just went down the drain.

One other point. Even with the public release of this internal investigation, EPA has been slow to provide Congress information so it can conduct oversight:

[House Science Committee Chairman Lamar] Smith said Tuesday that his attempts to get the EPA to send documents to his committee have been in vain. He said the science committee sent a letter to McCarthy on Aug. 10, five days after the spill, requesting all pertinent documents related to the incident.

Is not being transparent also part of what EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy means when she said her agency would be held to a “higher standard” over this spill?

More Articles On: 

About the Author

About the Author

Sean Hackbarth
Senior Editor, Digital Content

Sean writes about public policies affecting businesses including energy, health care, and regulations. When not battling those making it harder for free enterprise to succeed, he raves about all things Wisconsin (his home state) and religiously follows the Green Bay Packers.