BILLINGS — Federal officials refused to share water-quality data for weeks following a blowout of toxic wastewater from a Colorado mine that fouled rivers across the Southwest, New Mexico’s top environmental regulator said Thursday.
The move by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency aimed to downplay the severity of the spill, hobbling the state’s response, said Ryan Flynn, New Mexico secretary of Environment.
His criticisms, aired before a U.S. House committee investigating the Aug. 5 accident, offered more fodder for congressional Republicans eager to find fault with a federal agency they perceive as having an anti-business agenda.
An EPA cleanup team accidentally triggered the 3 million-gallon spill as it was doing excavation work on the inactive Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado. The plume turned the Animas River there a sickly mustard yellow color, and the pollution tainted with heavy metals flowed downstream to New Mexico and Utah.
EPA spokeswoman Laura Allen said water-quality test results were made public on the agency’s website as soon as they were validated. The EPA has closely coordinated with state officials and American Indians from the Navajo Nation, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes to keep them apprised of the test results, Allen said.
But Flynn said warning of the pollution came belatedly, and was followed by incomplete testing data presented in a way that minimized the presence of contaminants including arsenic and lead, which were above drinking-water standards. He called it a “PR stunt” by the EPA.
“It was so insulting that I just can’t imagine a scientist would be involved in its development,” he said of data given to the state.
Allen did not directly address Flynn’s allegations or explain why some data was apparently withheld.
Thursday’s hearing before the House committees on Natural Resources and Oversight and Government Reform was the fourth this month examining the spill. Republican lawmakers have used the events to bash the EPA for its handling of issues ranging from climate change to stream protection.
Democrats have sought to put the focus on the mining industry and ongoing pollution from tens of thousands of abandoned mines across the country.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay called the hearing a “farce” that was intended to blame the EPA for the “callous disregard of mining companies.”
“We should be ashamed of what we’re doing in this committee today,” the Missouri Democrat said.
The Colorado spill came from a cluster of century-old mines in the San Juan mountains that together discharge an estimated 330 million gallons of toxic wastewater annually, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified. That’s over 100 times more pollution than the Gold King spill.
“We were trying to get a handle on a situation that was growing increasingly dangerous,” McCarthy said. “This is not the EPA’s … finest hour. But I am here to tell you that we are taking responsibility.”
She added that mining companies contribute “close to zero” money to help clean up such sites, under an 1872 mining law that the administration of President Barack Obama has proposed to change.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, said that the EPA should face civil and criminal penalties for not consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before its work at Gold King.
The EPA had warned in 2014 that a blowout from the mine was possible, and Bishop said under federal law the agency should have considered potential harm to protected species living downstream in the Animas and San Juan rivers.
“You violated the law. The standard you make everyone else live by, you violated,” he told McCarthy.
McCarthy responded that she did not believe the law had been broken, but a review of the accident needs to be completed before a final determination. An Interior Department investigation of the spill is due in late October. The EPA Inspector General’s office is conducting a separate review.