GOP senators call for criminal inquiry in Gold King Mine spill

Kayakers navigate the Animas River near Durango, Colo., on Aug. 6 in water discolored from a mine waste spill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that a cleanup team was working with heavy equipment to secure an entrance to the Gold King Mine. Workers instead released millions of gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River. (Jerry Mcbride/The Durango Herald/AP)
Kayakers navigate the Animas River near Durango, Colo., on Aug. 6 in water discolored from a mine waste spill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that a cleanup team was working with heavy equipment to secure an entrance to the Gold King Mine. Workers instead released millions of gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River. (Jerry Mcbride/The Durango Herald/AP)

Two Republican U.S. senators are asking the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation into the Gold King Mine spill that dumped millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into rivers flowing through New Mexico and three other states.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and John Barasso of Wyoming wrote a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch today making the request.

“We believe that sufficient information exists to warrant an investigation by the Justice Department of whether EPA employees or contractors may have committed crimes in connection with the spill, including but not limited to criminal violations of federal environmental laws, criminal negligence and obstruction,” the senators wrote.

The spill in August 2015 contaminated waters in the Animas and San Juan Rivers with high levels of arsenic, lead and other potentially toxic heavy metals. The EPA triggered the spill while trying to contain a potential blowout at the abandoned mine near Silverton, Colo. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy later expressed regret that the accidental spill occurred, but the EPA has also maintained that it was trying to mitigate a mess left by private industry.

The EPA on Tuesday defended its actions in the wake of the toxic spill.

“After the accidental release, EPA took responsibility for the cleanup, and conducted an internal review of the events leading up to the Gold King Mine incident,” the EPA statement said. “Also, at EPA’s request, based upon the U.S. Department of lnterior’s mining expertise, DOI conducted an independent technical review of the incident. Finally, the Agency is awaiting a report by the Office of lnspector General and its review of the incident. These reports will help inform EPA’s ongoing efforts to work safely and effectively at mine sites as we carry out our mission to protect human health and the environment.”

In their letter to Lynch, McCain and Barasso suggested that the EPA holds private industry to a higher environmental standard than it does the agency itself.

“(The Justice Department’s) involvement is necessary to affirm that the government is willing to hold itself to the same level of accountability as it holds private companies whose negligence results in serious environmental damage,” the letter says.

The senators said their Justice Department request stemmed in part from testimony at an April 22 field hearing in Arizona that examined the cause of the blowout.

New Mexico’s congressional delegation initially criticized the EPA for poor communication about the spill. Rep. Steve Pearce has introduced legislation that would establish an independent inquiry into the disaster, perhaps by a university. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who represents the affected area in New Mexico, and Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are all pushing legislation to ensure that those affected by the spill are adequately compensated.

Heinrich and Udall have also proposed legislation to boost federal royalty rates on hardrock mining to raise more revenue for abandoned mine cleanup.

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