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Two congressmen from Utah say that if the EPA knew Colorado's defunct Gold King Mine was likely to release contaminated water, it should have taken action or at least done a better job of responding after a contractor accidentally sent 3 million gallons of mine waste into the Animas River last month.
Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz expressed as much in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, dated Monday, in advance of a joint House committee investigation into the spill.
The two Republicans Bishop is chairman of the Natural Resources committee and Chaffetz leads the committee on Oversight and Government Reform asked for extensive documentation on the Aug. 5 mine breach, which sent bright yellow, heavy-metal-contaminated water and sediment gushing into the Animas River. The waste then flowed into the San Juan River, reaching New Mexico and Utah's Lake Powell a few days later.
The letter requests all documents on, among other topics, the EPA's decision to work at the Gold King Mine, its vetting of contractors, communication with federal agencies, local leaders and citizens, and discussions of designating the Gold King Mine or other mines as Superfund sites. It also asks for all photographs and videos of the work at the mine, the spill and damaged areas.
Joined by Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., vice chairwoman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Bishop and Chaffetz say in their letter that internal EPA documents show the federal agency and the company it hired to work on the mine knew in June 2014 that a spill of mine waste was "an imminent possibility" and yet "has struggled to respond to the disaster."
The EPA initially announced that 1 million gallons of waste had spilled, a third of the actual amount, the letter says, and did not provide timely information to local officials affected by the spill.
The letter also asserts that the EPA asking a fellow executive-branch agency the Department of the Interior to review the spill raises concerns of the investigation being "susceptible to political influence" due to a lack of independence.
The three also sent a letter to EPA contractor Environmental Restoration, LLC the company whose work at the mine triggered the spill to provide "all documents referring or relating to the Gold King Mine," as well as information on any violations by the contractor since 2000.
Bishop, Chaffetz and Lummis request that all information be provided by Sept. 14 at 5 p.m. The two committees will meet Sept. 17 to discuss the spill and the EPA's response.
"The toxic discharge affected the environment in at least three states and disrupted the livelihoods of nearly every person and business in the surrounding areas," the letter to Environmental Restoration LLC states. "The full damages and long-term consequences of the spill are still unknown."
Attorneys general for the three states have discussed taking legal action against the EPA over the spill, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency last month.