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Months ago, Colorado town resisted EPA tests that caused toxic disaster

By   /   August 13, 2015  /   No Comments

Part 1 of 10 in the series Poison Hotline (EPA)
Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP

SPILL: People kayak in the Animas River near Durango, Colo., Thursday, in water colored from a mine waste spill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that a cleanup team was working with heavy equipment Wednesday to secure an entrance to the Gold King Mine. Workers instead released an estimated 1 million gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River.

Five months before the Animas River toxic spill disaster, leaders from the tiny Colorado mining town of Silverton pleaded with EPA officials to not perform tests that would declare the area a Superfund site.

Yet the Environmental Protection Agency was intent on ferreting out “widespread soil contamination” from historic mines, even though the town was tested five years ago and no problems were found.

“The fact is that our mission is to protect human health and the environment and not to stick our heads in the sand and not look,” declared Steve Wharton, head of a Superfund response team. His comments were contained in a March 27 article that appeared in the local Silverton Standard newspaper.

On Aug. 5, an EPA crew breached a debris dam at the old Gold King Mine, and 3 million gallons of water containing lead and arsenic flowed into the Animas River. The poisons turned the water bright orange and have since flowed into Utah and New Mexico, creating an epic disaster affecting farmers, towns and the Navajo Nation, which rely on the water.

The crews had started to collect soil samples sometime after June 23.

One geologist thinks the EPA created the mess to give itself another Superfund site to work on.

Five days before the breach, the Silverton Standard ran a letter to the editor from a person identified as Dave Taylor, who said he had 47 years’ experience as a professional geologist.

The technical letter describes how the EPA will create a scenario where “the water will find a way out and exfiltrate uncontrollably through connected abandoned shafts, drifts, raises, fractures…contamination may actually increase due to the disturbance and flushing action within the workings.”

Taylor accused the EPA of creating the mess to get “a foot in the door to justify its hidden agenda for construction of a treatment plant.”

RELATED: Three strikes and you’re out: Grothman calls for EPA administrator’s resignation

Taylor wasn’t too far off. When asked in the town meeting whether the EPA wanted to declare the area a Superfund site, EPA project manager Paula Schmittdiel said, “That’s still a point of discussion.”

Photo courtesy Gina McCarthy, Twitter

WE’RE WORKING ON IT: EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy tries to assure that all is well. From left, Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez, McCarthy, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye.

With mining now a bygone industry, Silverton relies on tourism for its livelihood, and town leaders said making the area a Superfund site would be “a knife in the economy.”

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy toured a riverbank in Durango, Colorado on Wednesday — one week after the spill and after media reports started becoming extremely hostile toward the Obama administration. She said the river seemed to be “restoring itself.”

Thursday, McCarthy tweeted a smiling photo of herself with two leaders from the Navajo Nation who clearly looked distressed.

The EPA has now gone on full-fledged public relations damage control, deploying dozens of workers in three states to assess the damage and deal with the public. The latest news is that Silverton area water levels have been returned to pre-disaster levels, the EPA says. That’s because the water is fast-moving and feeds into the Colorado River, which in turn leads to the ocean.


Part of 10 in the series Poison Hotline (EPA)


Tori formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.