Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Gina McCarthy recently told students and faculty at Harvard University the “good news” about an agency-caused mine blowout in Colorado that polluted at least two rivers.
“But, the good news about Gold King is that, you know, it really was a bright color, but the bright color was because the iron was oxidizing,” McCarthy said while speaking at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“It meant we had actually less problem than how it usually leaks, [laugh] which is pretty constantly, and so it was only a half a day’s release of what generally comes from those mines and goes into those rivers,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy’s comments come after Congress released a report putting the blame for the Gold King Mine spill near Silverton, Colorado squarely on the EPA. Agency workers breached the mine and caused 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater to pour into the nearby Animas River in August.
The orange plume eventually made its way to the San Juan River and caused huge problems for those living in the region. The EPA did take responsibility for the spill, but was sharply criticized for its slow response. Agency officials did not warn states and local communities about the spill for a whole day, and federal officials withheld information on the spill from state attorneys general.
The EPA and its environmentalist allies also tried to deflect some of the blame onto mining companies that had left the abandoned mines the agency was trying to clean up. The EPA argued the Gold King Mine spill wasn’t all that bad when compared to what leaks out of abandoned mines in the region every year.
“Based upon 2009 – 2014 flow data, approximately 330 million gallons of contaminated water was being discharged from mines in the Watershed each year to Cement Creek and the Animas River – 100 times more than the estimated release from the Gold King Mine on August 5,” McCarthy told Congress in a September hearing.
McCarthy, however, is comparing apples and oranges by likening the annual flow of wastewater from hundreds of abandoned mines in the region to one massive spill. That spill unleashed 3 million gallons for a few hours during a time of year when wastewater flows are usually very low.
The EPA-caused spill unleashed the equivalent of “9 football fields spread out at one foot deep” for a couple hours, according to a report by University of Arizona researchers.
Mine waste from Gold King was only coming out at a rate of 112 gallons per minute in August 2014. After the spill, wastewater was coming out at a rate of 500 to 700 gallons per minute.
While there have thankfully been no reported short-term health problems from the spill, experts are worried the toxic metals, like arsenic and lead, that leaked from the mine could pose long-term health problems.
“There is a potential for such sediments to be stirred up and metals released during high water events or recreational use,” University of Arizona researchers wrote. “The metals could become concentrated in fish that live in the river and feed on things that grow in the sediments. Metals in the sediments could seep into the groundwater, resulting in impacts to drinking and irrigation water.”
“If the metal-rich sediments deposit on river shores, they could potentially dry out and be blown as dust by the wind, where they could contaminate surrounding soil, and could also be inhaled,” according to researchers.
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