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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes joined the attorney general from Colorado on Wednesday to tour the mine site where a massive toxic spill occurred earlier this month.
Reyes called it a "fact-finding tour" at the Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado, about 150 miles from the state's border with Utah, to assess the impacts on the area and determine the role of the Environmental Protection Agency in the disaster.
On Aug. 5, 3 million gallons of water containing lead, arsenic, zinc, mercury and cadmium were unleashed from the abandoned mine site into the nearby Animas River while EPA crews worked in the area.
The EPA reportedly caused the water to spill while attempting to measure the depth of the contaminated de facto reservoir.
Reyes said the EPA showed him and other government officials around the mine site, but the agency was wary about releasing specific information about the spill.
Reyes said earlier this month and reiterated Wednesday that he is considering legal action against the EPA, depending on both its responsibility for the spill and its response to it.
Citing an ongoing Department of the Interior investigation, EPA workers are delaying the release of some details about what precisely caused the Gold King Mine spill.
"Part of the reason we came here was to separate myth from fact," Reyes said in a conference call Wednesday. "I'll be honest, the EPA was very accommodating, but their people were extremely careful and guarded, as you might expect, in the information they would share with us and often deferred to others in the agency or decided not to comment to potentially protect the agency. What information we did get was still very helpful to us."
Reyes said some residents in the Silverton, Colorado, area are suspicious that the EPA, wanting to make a political statement, intentionally caused the 3 million gallons of toxic water to spill from the abandoned mine. For many years, the EPA reportedly considered the area around the Gold King Mine as a potential Superfund environmental cleanup site, but the agency met opposition and eventually relented.
I'll be honest, the EPA was very accommodating, but their people were extremely careful and guarded, as you might expect, in the information they would share with us and often deferred to others in the agency or decided not to comment to potentially protect the agency. What information we did get was still very helpful to us.
–Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes
No evidence currently points to the spill being intentional, Reyes said, but he noted he and his legal team are still gathering what information they can.
"I actually asked them point-blank if they were aware of any evidence that might support the suspicion that people have about purposeful motives, and they categorically denied any of that," he said.
The scope of the site where the spill occurred is visually stunning, according to Reyes.
"Where the release occurred, there was a large gaping hole. I don't want to even guess the dimensions," he said.
The yellow sludge that polluted the San Juan River and threatened Lake Powell in Utah after the spill has dissipated and is no longer visible. Acidity levels in those Utah water bodies are measuring normally, according to Donna Spangler, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Quality.
Still, environmental and wildlife officials in the region are concerned that water sources and multiple species will need to be monitored closely for a matter of years to detect the possible effects of the toxic water on fish and other wildlife.
"It disrupted and halted recreation, swimming, boating, fishing," Reyes said. "It's impacted irrigation farming and ranching, tourism and our recreation-based economy."
Farmers in Kane and San Juan counties have said they're nervous about how to water their crops and feed their livestock and other animals, the attorney general said.
Reyes promised repercussions for the EPA if the agency skirts its obligations the environmental disaster's aftermath.
"(We will) discuss the possibility of legal actions if the EPA does not live up to its commitment to be fully accountable for the injuries and damages that they incurred," he said.
Several state senators sent a letter to the EPA demanding answers. The letter is posted below:
Dear Inspector General Elkins: We welcome the announcement that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) will conduct a preliminary inquiry into the Gold King Mine spill that occurred this month in southwest Colorado, and request that the scope of the report includes the specific questions listed in this letter. It is our belief that there was a lack of transparency, coordination, and communication in the events leading up to and following EPA's spill of approximately three million gallons of contaminated water into Cement Creek and the Animas River. The EPA's actions at the Gold King Mine were intended to reduce the continual flow of acid mine drainage from mine sites in the Animas River basin. Communities in the basin have long sought solutions to improve water quality. But clearly, the EPA's execution of this project fell far short of the standards to which any cleanup operation should adhere. The release of contaminated water from this legacy mine has polluted the Animas River in Colorado and spread through New Mexico, Utah, the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, and the Navajo Nation. Although the EPA has taken responsibility for this disaster, the OIG investigation and report will assist in determining the details of the accident, provide a better opportunity to improve future remediation projects, and prevent spills of this nature at other legacy mines across the West. We, therefore, respectfully request the following be included in a report on the events surrounding the Gold King Mine spill: 1. Details on the work EPA was conducting at the Gold King Mine prior to the spill on August 5, 2015; 2. Details of the expertise of the EPA employees and contractors carrying out that work; 3. Criteria EPA would apply before approving a contractor for a similar cleanup performed by a private party and whether EPA applied the same criteria to itself; 4. EPA's legal obligations and current policies and guidelines on reporting a release of a hazardous substance; 5. EPA's legal obligations and current policies and guidelines on contacting tribal, state and local government agencies when the agency creates a release of a hazardous substance; 6. Whether EPA followed its legal obligations, current policies and guidelines in this particular spill at Gold King Mine; 7. Whether EPA's current policies and guidelines are adequate to ensure compliance with legal requirements and to keep tribal, state and local agencies adequately informed regarding a release of hazardous substances; 8. Whether the delay in providing information to tribal, state and local agencies created any health risk or delayed emergency responses from those agencies; 9. EPA's policies regarding indemnification of contractors and whether indemnification has any impact on the standard of care taken during response activities; 10. A timeline of actions and internal and external communications by EPA in the hours and days immediately following the release; 11. Whether, given known concerns that work at the Red and Bonita Mine could increase water in the Gold King Mine, EPA took appropriate care to determine water levels in the Gold King Mine before removing rock from the portal; 12. Whether EPA should have conducted pressure tests on the trapped water behind the mine pool before attempting to open the Gold King Mine as was done at the Red and Bonita Mine in 2010; and 13. What additional policies should be in place to safeguard against future spills at abandoned mine sites during remediation projects. Including these questions in an OIG report, along with a full investigation of the Gold King Mine accident, will help prevent future spills of this magnitude and ensure that recovery for tribal, state and local economies is expeditiously put on the best path forward. Thank you for your attention and consideration of this request.
Contributing: Jed Boal