This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
State officials said they weren't surprised by this week's report from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which concluded that the Environmental Protection Agency was responsible for the sequence of events leading to summer's Gold King Mine release.
According to the report, the EPA could have avoided the incident had it drilled into the mine from above to test the water level inside the mine before attempting to open it. Instead, the report says, the EPA incorrectly estimated the water level and began drilling below the water line, ultimately causing an earthen dam to fail and release an estimated 3 million gallons of wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers.
None of this surprised Gov. Gary Herbert who, alongside other Utah officials, including U.S. Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop, has pointed a finger at the EPA since the Aug. 5 incident.
"The Environmental Protection Agency's own work plan for the Gold King Mine recognized the real potential for a blowout," Herbert said in a statement issued Friday morning. "With that knowledge, this disaster and the devastating results were preventable. The state of Utah will continue to hold the EPA accountable for this mistake, including compensation for the costs we incurred in protecting Utahns from the release."
It seems likely at this point that the EPA will fund at least a portion of the state's ongoing water monitoring, said Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality. Baker said the DWQ has met with EPA officials to discuss some of the state's concerns with the EPA's proposed plan for monitoring water quality in the Animas and San Juan rivers and Lake Powell for long-term effects of the release.
The DWQ initially voiced concerns about whether the low number of EPA monitor stations would be sufficient to monitor the results of the release in Utah. Though the plan is not yet final, Baker said, it looks as though the EPA will opt to provide funding to help the state "do the monitoring we feel we need to do" instead of conducting such operations itself.
That state monitoring, which Baker said will remain in place "for the foreseeable future," has yet to identify any anomalies in the water, sediment or aquatic life associated with the San Juan and Lake Powell.
But he said the state is still concerned about whether contaminants deposited upstream might migrate into Utah.
"We want to see this over a period of time, and not just a snapshot," he said. "I think part of this accountability issue is that the EPA is going to have to pick up the tab, not only for the immediate response, but the long term efforts as well, until we're satisfied that the waters are made whole and are back to the conditions prior to the event."