Congress would like a word with the EPA over that toxic mine spill thing

As I’m sure you recall by now, the EPA ran into a smidgen of trouble this summer when they went poking around in an abandoned gold mine and dumped three million gallons of heavy metal laden water into the local water supply out in Colorado. At the time I wondered if there was anyone who could hold the EPA accountable when they were the ones causing an environmental disaster. That seemed like more of a thought experiment than anything else because the EPA is supposed to be the ones policing such things. But now there may be a glimmer of hope. After stonewalling on all the questions being sent their way, the agency is being invited to come up to the hill for a little chat. (Yahoo News)

The focus on a toxic mine spill that fouled rivers in three Western states shifts to Congress this week as lawmakers kick off a series of hearings into how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accidentally unleashed the deluge of poisoned water.

Republican committee leaders in the House and Senate said EPA officials were frustrating their attempts to investigate the spill by withholding documents that could explain what went wrong when a cleanup team doing excavation work triggered the release of 3 million gallons of rust-colored sludge from the inactive Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado.

Mining industry critics and some Democrats have their own agenda: They want to use the August 5 accident as leverage for proposals to make companies pay for the cleanup of thousands of abandoned mines across the U.S.

As this reports suggests, there are a couple of different angles being taken in the coming dog pile. The GOP members of the Science Committee are going to try to figure out why the documentation related to the Gold King mine has still not been released. As I’ve noted here before, the EPA isn’t generally sitting on sensitive national security documents which might endanger our readiness for a missile strike. In fact, the vast majority of their business involves things which are more likely to put you to sleep than alarm you. The fact that they don’t want to give up the goods seems to be a fairly persuasive indicator that there’s some serious butt covering going on here.

But the Democrats are looking to use this government created disaster as an opportunity for new regulations and orders which would force owners (or previous owners) to “clean up” some of these long abandoned mines. I’ll be very interested in seeing precisely how they plan to do that. We’re talking about very old school mining operations where people dug out vast amounts of silver and gold during the glory days of the gold rush and beyond. Once the operations concluded something became very obvious: when you dig big holes in ground in certain parts of the country, they tend to fill up with water over time. And since it’s a mine, that water will get fairly nasty.

I happen to be in regular contact with folks who dig holes in the ground for a living (though they are looking for black gold, not the shiny kind) and they will all tell you the same thing. Depending what part of the country you are in, smashing your way through the water table involves your shaft taking on water sooner or later and you have to deal with that as part of the exploratory process. But what do you do about it later? Even if you could somehow safely drain these gold and silver mines of all their water, capping them solves nothing. It’s not just rain water filling them up… they flood through underground seepage. And if you don’t mess with them too much like the EPA did the water generally stays there.

I suppose it’s theoretically possible to fill up a series of shafts that size with some form of hydro-tolerant concrete but you’d probably bankrupt the owner if you made them do it. (I suppose that might be the underlying idea, though.) Still, this is a tricky situation which isn’t going to be solved by waving the EPA’s wand and ordering people to just “go clean them up.”

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