The head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement arm told lawmakers no one at the agency would be punished for spilling 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste in Colorado.
Why? Because EPA only released pollution from Gold King Mine into the Animas River, they didn’t create the mine waste.
“Why has nobody in EPA been held liable, been criminally charged?” Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan pressed Cynthia Giles, the head of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, in a Wednesday hearing.
“We were acting as a responder,” Giles said, noting federal law distinguished “the company who makes and releases pollution” from “entities that are trying to respond and clean up pollution that other people created.”
“We generally do not assess fines or pursue them for violations,” she said, adding EPA only punishes those who create pollution. In the Case of Gold King Mine
“We did not. We were responsible for the release,” Giles said. “The pollution was not created by EPA. We were attempting to remedy the pollution that was left there by someone else.”
Giles was speaking before a Senate committee on EPA’s enforcement actions. Sullivan pressed Giles on EPA’s response to last year’s Gold King Mine blowout, which released 3 million gallons of wastewater, including 880,000 pounds of toxic metals, into the Animas River.
The mine waste eventually made its way through New Mexico, Utah and Navajo Nation, sparking huge backlash against EPA. Thousands temporarily had their drinking water shut off, and experts say it could take decades to fully clean up the spill.
Republican lawmakers were quick to demand EPA hold itself and the contractor involved accountable for the spill.
EPA has taken responsibility for the spill and reimbursed local governments for some of the costs incurred by the spill, but the agency has yet to punish any employees or contractors. This is the same agency that has put people in jail for accidental spills.
In one instance, a railroad supervisor was held criminally liable for Clean Water Act violations after a contractor managing an Alaska project site accidentally hit an oil pipeline and spilled between 1,000 and 5,000 gallons of crude oil into a river.
Railroad supervisor Edward Hanousek wasn’t even on site that day, but was still convicted of criminal negligence under the CWA.
The EPA’s inspector general has opened an investigation into the spill, but it’s not clear if it’s a criminal probe.
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