Senator Barrasso's floor speech on the Gold King Mine

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September 17, 2015


Mr. BARRASSO. Madam President, I want to speak today about a tragedy that hit the American people, the American West last month, and it is something that didn’t get nearly as much attention as it should have. I am talking about what has been called the Gold King Mine spill. It happened on August 5. That was when the Environmental Protection Agency spilled 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into a tributary of the Animas River in Colorado—3 million gallons.

This is water that contained toxic substances, such as arsenic and lead. The agency was doing some work on an old mine when water under high pressure started rushing out. This disturbing incident raises serious questions about how the EPA, the so-called Environmental Protection Agency, does business.

First of all, it raises significant questions about this agency’s responsiveness. After the EPA had this accident, apparently it never occurred to them to immediately call the towns downstream and to let anyone know this toxic plume was headed their way. The Animas River connects to the San Juan River, which connects to the Colorado River and to Lake Powell. These are some of the most beautiful natural resources in all of America. It is the source of water for communities all along the way. They provide recreation, water for irrigation for crops and for homes.

This water that was polluted by the Environmental Protection Agency flows from Colorado to New Mexico and into Utah. It flows through the land of the Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. These waterways are a sacred part of the culture for Native Americans who live near them. So why didn’t the EPA get on the phone? TheNavajo Nation was not informed until a full day after the spill. It got the news from the State of New Mexico, not from the agency that caused the disaster—the EPA.

At first, EPA didn’t even want to admit how bad the spill was. They said: Oh, it was a million gallons of wastewater. Days later they admitted they had actually spilled three times the amount they said at first. Four days after the spill, the EPA still hadn’t reported to Navajo leaders the presence of arsenic in the water—arsenic. It still hasn’t reported it. It took 5 days for the agency to set up a unified command center in Durango, CO.

Yesterday, I chaired a hearing of the Indian Affairs Committee that looked at how this disaster affected tribes along the route. The agency’s explanation was disappointing—very disappointing. The disaster happened over 6 weeks ago. The EPA is still not giving out detailed answers about what went wrong.

This tragedy also raises questions about the EPA’s basic competence. According to a preliminary review by the agency, the EPA failed to take basic precautions—failed to take basic precautions. The agency never even checked how high the water pressure was in the mine, but the report did say the EPA knew about this risk—the risk of a blowout—14 months earlier, before it actually happened. They knew about it. They knew the risk and never bothered to figure out what the worst-case scenario would be and what they would do if water actually started rushing out. But that is what happened, and they knew it could.

The people who live along these rivers are frustrated by this agency’s incompetence, but they are also frightened. People are afraid of what the long-term health effects might be for them and for their children. Farmers and ranchers are being devastated by the disaster. They are uncertain about whether the agency will be compensating them for their losses—losses that are the result of the EPA’s own incompetence.

At our hearing yesterday we heard from Gilbert Harrison. He is a Marine Corps veteran, and he has a 20-acre farm on the Navajo reservation. He grows corn, alfalfa, watermelons, and other crops. He estimates he is going to lose 40 to 50 percent of some of his crops because he couldn’t use the water to irrigate. The farmer told our committee yesterday:

    This spill caused by the U.S. EPA created a lot of chaos, confrontation, confusion, and losses among the farming community.

This was a man-made disaster, and the Obama administration’s EPA inflicted it upon Americans in these communities. I have spoken with tribal leaders who say the EPA has mishandled the spill, and the EPA’s mishandling of the spill has seriously damaged their trust—the tribe’s trust—of this agency. And I don’t blame them.

Finally, the EPA’s failure in this incident raises lots of questions about the agency’s priorities. After all, the Obama Environmental Protection Agency has expanded its authority—expanded and seized control over one area after another. Look at its destructive new rules on waters of the United States. This agency has declared that only Washington can be trusted to protect America’s rivers and streams.

That is what the Environmental Protection Agency says: Only they can be trusted to protect America’s rivers and streams. How then do they justify grabbing all of this new power when they can’t even protect rivers from themselves? They caused this problem. Look at this photo I have in the Chamber. Does this look like the work of a bureaucracy that should be in charge of protecting America’s precious waterways? Look at that before-and-after: beautiful blue water running through, then this—sludge, dirty, polluted, and toxic. The EPA caused this. Does this look like the work of a bureaucracy that should be in charge of protecting our national precious water?

The Obama administration has focused on its radical climate change agenda and has neglected its most basic responsibilities. This photo should not give anyone confidence that the Obama administration is up to the job. They are not.

Do we really think that Washington should have more control over rivers like this when they caused something like this? Does anybody in America believe that? Washington did this. The EPA did this. Washington poisoned this river this way. The Environmental Protection Agency—the so-called Environmental Protection Agency—must be held accountable.

When any private company is accused of violating the Clean Water Act, the EPA aggressively pursues civil fines against that company and any of the individuals involved as well. Even criminal prosecution occurs. If this were a 3-million-gallon toxic spill caused by private citizens, the EPA would act aggressively against those people. The EPA would never accept the kind of feeble, half apologies and explanations we have heard so far from this administration and from the Director of the EPA who testified yesterday. There is clearly a double standard between the way the EPA treats itself and the way it treats everyone else.

The EPA failed—it failed—to do the proper planning before it caused this disaster. I believe it has also failed to do the proper work before writing regulations, such as its waters of the United States rule and its so-called Clean Power Plan.

With this spill, the agency’s careless approach has done terrible damage to Americans living along the Animas River and other waterways. Its reckless and irresponsible regulations will have a devastating effect on the jobs and the lives of millions of Americans all across the country.At our hearing yesterday the EPA administrator continued to try to downplay the impact of its actions—downplay the impact of its actions. The agency needs to step back and rethink its priorities. This disaster happened because the EPA is inept at its job. There should be no more trying to deflect attention from the failure of the EPA—no more trying to grab additional power that it can use to do more damage.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been out of control for far too long. It is time for Congress and President Obama to hold the EPA accountable for its failures, and it is time to rein in this runaway bureaucracy before it does more damage to our communities, to our economy, and to our country.

Madam President, I yield the floor.