What Have We Learned from EPA’s Gold King Mine Disaster?

guest postOn January 9, 2014, a Freedom Industries facility next to the Elk River leaked ~10,000 gallons of crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) used in coal mining into the river, which is a tributary to the Kanawha River that runs through Charleston, WV. The results of that leak were dramatic. Some 300,000 residents from nine counties in the Charleston metropolitan area were without access to potable water for five days. Several Freedom Industries officials are now in jail and the company went bankrupt because of that single accident. Contrast coverage of that accident with another accident–caused by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the Gold King Mine in Colorado. EPA personnel were fiddling around “testing” at a gold mine wastewater storage impoundment and accidentally unplugged it, dumping 3 million gallons of some of the nastiest wastewater you can imagine–with lead, arsenic and other heavy metals–into the Animas River north of Silverton, CO (see EPA Causes Environmental Disaster in CO; Connection to Marcellus?). The Gold King Mine spill turned the Animas “an opaque orange color reminiscent of boxed mac and cheese.” Question: Should EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy be locked up and the EPA dismantled based on a single accident? Is there a double standard when it comes to environmental reporting?

Stephen Heins, an energy and regulatory consultant for a Wall Street firm, and former vice president of communication for Orion Energy Systems, is an occasional guest blogger here on MDN. Steve has penned an excellent article (below) that takes a look at EPA’s response to the Gold King Mine disaster. Steve says he’s not second-guessing the accident itself–it was an accident (they do happen). He’s interested in how the EPA responded, what we can learn from it, and whether or not a double standard exists when it comes to environmental reporting about government-caused accidents vs. those caused by private companies…

Questions Remain About Colorado Toxic Spill and The EPA

Accidents Will Happen, Making Quick Responses Crucial – Stephen Heins

While it would be easy to pile on more criticism of the EPA’s recent 3 million gallon toxic spill in Colorado on Wednesday August 5, but it is more constructive to identify the problems exposed by this disaster. This piece is not intended to be a criticism of the spill itself, because by all accounts, the Gold King Mine accident was just that: An accident. Certainly, it is a perfect time to do an assessment of the EPA’s response to the Colorado toxic spill on August 5, 2015.

There are two important questions remaining for EPA: After an early internal review, even the EPA noted that they were poorly prepared to handle the Gold King Mine disaster; and the other large problem was their almost total lack of timely communications.

It will be interesting to see the EPA’s self-analysis and Congresses review of the event. From internal EPA documents provided, the EPA had received an early warning about the possibility of a blowout on or about June 2, 2014 from a private contractor, Environmental Restoration. In a subsequent action plan dated May 2015, the EPA noted the potential for a blowout.

Dave Ostrander, the EPA’s regional director of Emergency Preparedness, Assessment and Emergency Response, said the agency was not ready as of Friday afternoon August 7th to release levels to the public. He highlighted that the first round of data includes dissolved metals, but it does not include total metals. The earliest an analysis of total metals would be available is Friday night. Officials will first verify results before releasing them to the public.

Administrators also stopped short of explaining any environmental and health impacts as a result of the leakage. They say they are analyzing historical data from similar events, but were unable to speculate on hazards that could arise from the event. Arguably, the biggest problem was with the EPA response to the spill late morning, August 5th. “This is a huge tragedy, and it’s hard being on the other side of this in terms of being the ones that caused this incident at this particular time,” Ostrander said. “We typically respond to emergencies; we don’t cause them.”

The EPA’s lack of disaster preparation directly led to tardy communication to downstream citizens and Colorado and New Mexico officials. “For what ever reason, their communications continue to be insufficient,” said Durango-based San Juan Citizens Alliance executive director Dan Olson on August 11th. “They’re sowing more confusion in the community than they are resolving it.”

In particular, New Mexico’s Governor Susana Martinez and other state officials weren’t alerted until the next day August 6th. Then, there is the matter of communications between the Colorado EPA, regional EPA staff and the USEPA which was revealed to be flawed. Part of the problem had to do with the EPA’s first reaction to the event. One week after Animas River toxic spill, the full impact still was not clear.

“Our initial assessment of it was not appropriate in that we did not understand the full extent of what we were looking at,” EPA regional director of the EPA Shaun McGrath said. He went on to say that the EPA could have done a better job communicating the disaster to the public so that the community could have had more time to respond. “Some of our earlier comments may have sounded cavalier about the public-health concern and the concern for wildlife,” McGrath said. “I want to assure you that the EPA absolutely is concerned.”

In an Associated Press article written written on August 21, “it was typically taken days to get any detailed response from the agency [EPA], if at all.” In fact, the EPA has yet to reveal the details of their emergency plan for the excavation.

Other important communication questions remain about the EPA response. There was the general lack of information provided to the media by the EPA, highlighted by the 6 day delay, until August 11th, before Secretary McCarthy even noticed it publicly. In fact, it took CNN three days to do its first reporting of the Gold King Mine disaster; While it took until August 10 for the New York Times and the Washington Post to publish their first stories on the spill. Surprisingly, any early news coverage of the toxic spill was confined to the Colorado and New Mexico media and the Weather Channel.

Some pundits might fairly conclude that the Gold King Mine spill and its media coverage demonstrates a double standard in environmental reporting: Last year, a West Virginia company spilled 10,000 gallons of chemical in a nearby river on January 9, 2014 and now several company officials are in jail and the company was fined and ultimately went bankrupt. The WV story was reported by the NY Times on January 10th and Washington Post on January 11, 2014 and CNN on January 12, 2014. The story line was “loose regulation.”

Contrast that WV coverage with the Colorado toxic spill and the pundits might just be right.