PHOENIX – U.S. Sen. John McCain on Friday called for a criminal investigation into actions by the Environmental Protection Agency that led to a Colorado mine spill that polluted rivers in three Western states last summer.
During a congressional hearing in Phoenix, McCain said EPA officials knew about the potential for catastrophe and failed to the do proper testing before inadvertently triggering the Aug. 5 blowout at the Gold King Mine that dumped 3 million gallons of toxic sludge into the Animas and San Juan rivers.
“What is clear now is that not enough has been done,” McCain said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that a DOJ criminal investigation is merited and must now occur. EPA officials said it’s not clear that additional testing could have prevented the incident, but they acknowledged they notified tribal officials too late.”
McCain and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, head of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, subpoenaed EPA officials to turn up at the field hearing where they invited Navajo and Hopi tribal leaders, and U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick to assess the EPA’s response to the spill.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye testified before the panel about the EPA’s failures to communicate and the hardships facing those affected by the spill.
Begaye said it took two days for the EPA to notify Navajo Nation officials about the spill. The Animas River flows into the San Juan River, which flows through the nation. The agency also never told officials that an estimated 5.5 million gallons of polluted water was already pouring into the river daily, Begaye said.
The farmers who live off that land need revenue as soon as possible, Begaye said, adding that there also needs to be a plan to prevent future contamination.
“They need to compensate our farmers because they are suffering,” he said. “We will be living with this for the next 20-plus years.”
The acid mine drainage in the Animas and San Juan rivers is a problem that goes back over a hundred years, and local governments in Colorado have asked the EPA to address it through a Superfund listing, said Durango City Councilor Dean Brookie.
He said he would oppose a criminal investigation because it could hinder a Superfund listing. The listing would lead to the environmental cleanup of the Gold King and 47 other mining sites in the area. It would also free up millions of dollars in federal funding to support the work.
“What we need are solutions, not investigations,” Brookie said.
McCain should “fully understand the problems and the history of acid mine drainage in our watershed before he starts pointing figures and making assertions that fully appear to be politically motivated,” Brookie said.
In Phoenix, EPA officials recommitted to cooperating with states and tribes to monitor for the estimated 880,000 pounds of heavy metals including arsenic, copper, lead, mercury and aluminum that spilled into rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
Mathy Stanislaus, one of the subpoenaed EPA officials, said the EPA has reimbursed the Navajo Nation $156,000 and allocated nearly $450,000 to the tribe for water monitoring. “One of the initial lessons learned is that the EPA could do a better job communicating and working with our tribal partners,” he said.
There has been a regional call for reimbursement for costs related to the spill, and earlier this week, La Plata County commissioners expressed dismay that the process was moving so slowly. The county recently received about $9,700 from the EPA for costs related to a Superfund evaluation tour, but is seeking millions for money it spent in the wake of the spill and ongoing cleanup costs.
The EPA has said it plans to return to the Gold King Mine this spring or early summer to resume preliminary cleanup work.
The EPA also plans to continue its work with tribes, states and cities to monitor rivers affected by the spill, especially as runoff from melting snow threatens to stir up potentially toxic metals that settled in the river bottom after the spill, though it isn’t clear yet what effect the spring and summer runoff will have.
The Durango Herald contributed to this report.