Washington, DC - Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet questioned Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), today at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing regarding the examination of the harmful effects of the Gold King Mine disaster. Bennet asked McCarthy about steps the agency is considering to clean up the Animas River, including the possibility of constructing a water treatment facility.
Below are Senator Bennet's prepared remarks:
"Thank you Chairman Barrasso and Senator Tester for inviting us to speak this afternoon.
The blowout at the Gold King Mine was a disaster that affected many communities in Colorado and New Mexico. And although the EPA was assessing the mine, there's no denying that they caused the spill. That's entirely unacceptable.
It's also clear that the agency was slow to communicate with local governments, and didn't obtain water quality results or bring water to farmers who needed it quickly enough. When Senator Gardner and I traveled to Durango four days after the blowout, the river was still bright orange and closed to the public.
The Animas River really is the lifeblood of Durango. Rafting companies have lost business, farmers couldn't water crops, and moms are still keeping their kids out of the river. These families deserve to have the full attention and the dedicated resources of the Administration committed to the clean-up.
In the week after the spill, we spoke with Administrator McCarthy and wrote to the EPA and the President. We appreciate that Administrator McCarthy listened to our call and came to Colorado to view the area and address the community. Following a crisis like this, it's tempting to point fingers - and we must hold people and agencies responsible for any egregious mistakes or negligence they committed in the days and hours after the spill. But as the communities recover, it's also critical we look at the bigger picture. Let's identify exactly what went wrong to make sure this doesn't happen again.
We also need to put it in context. The blowout released 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage. This same amount of polluted water was already being released from the Gold King Mine about every week. And the four mines in the area release more than 300 million gallons of acid mine drainage into the River every year. This has been going on for more than 130 years.
In 1902, the water quality was so bad that Durango permanently switched to the Florida River for its main drinking water supply. That decision largely protected the town's drinking water from the most recent disaster. There are more than 23,000 abandoned mines in Colorado, including 400 in the San Juan Mountains. We need solutions to address the acid mine drainage coming from all of these old abandoned mines.
And in the Upper Animas watershed, we need an immediate solution. That's why we've asked Administrator McCarthy and the President to prioritize funding for a water treatment plant.
We also need to pass Good Samaritan legislation to encourage counties, nonprofits, and companies to clean up abandoned mines. And we need to reform the 1872 Mining Law.
In the aftermath of the spill, the Southern Ute Tribe acted quickly to notify other tribes and local governments, begin water sampling, and provide water for livestock. The tribal leadership closely collaborated with local governments, sister tribes, the EPA, and the state. They've demonstrated their expertise, professionalism, and leadership.
And Mr. Mike Olguin was an integral part of that effort and he's here today to testify on the second panel. Mr. Olguin has served the tribe for 37 years and will be a vast source of knowledge for all of us. We're glad that he is able to join us today and share his experiences during the disaster.
Thank you again Mr. Chairman."
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