U.S. authorities say rivers tainted by last week’s massive spill from an abandoned Colorado gold mine are starting to recover, but for the government’s Environmental Protection Agency, the political fallout from the disaster could linger.
The agency’s critics are already seeking to use its handling of the mine spill to undercut the Obama administration’s rollout of major regulations aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the nation’s power plants.
Both the House and Senate are planning hearings after Congress returns from its August recess.
”The EPA is supposed to help prevent environmental catastrophes, not cause them,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, a Republican member of the House leadership. ”But, sadly, President Obama’s EPA has been too busy threatening American jobs with radical regulations instead of focusing on what should be their core mission.”
EPA and contract workers accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater as they inspected the idled Gold King mine on Aug. 5, just two days after Obama unveiled his Clean Power Plan.
At least 15 states say they plan to sue over the new carbon restrictions, and coal-mining backers like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are urging states to simply ignore the new carbon rules from Washington.
Over the last week, even Democrats representing states affected by the spill have criticized the agency’s response as anemic.
On Tuesday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy gave a policy speech about the new carbon-reduction program at an event in Washington. But at a news conference afterward, every question was about the mine spill. McCarthy said her agency takes full responsibility for the accident and expressed deep sorrow for the environmental harm caused to the Animas and San Juan rivers.
The EPA chief then left for a two-day fence-mending trip out West aimed at showing that her agency is responsive and competent.
For Republicans, it was an opportunity to put the EPA on the defensive.
”I think we have seen what happens when the EPA comes after private industry – they come after them with heavy hand,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. ”Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and we have seen a lack of communication and coordination.”
Bob Deans, a spokesman for the environmental group National Resources Defense Council, predicted that people would see the efforts to link the spill to regulations aimed at addressing climate change for what it is – political theater.
”The public wants action on climate change and we expect our waters to be protected from mining waste,” Deans said. ”We count on the EPA to do both. This tragic accident hasn’t changed that. If anything, it’s highlighted the risks we take and the price we pay when we allow environmental threats to fester.”