EPA knew cleaning up mine could trigger spill

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was aware of the potential for a catastrophic release of toxic materials from an old Colorado gold mine but appears to have only had a cursory plan to deal with the threat.

The revelations came on Friday when the agency, under pressure from media organizations, released background documents relating to the accident on Aug. 5, which released an estimated 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater including high concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead.

According to the first statement released by the EPA, the contaminated water was hiding out behind debris near the idled Gold King Mine entrance, where a crew was working with heavy machinery. The mine waste poured out into a nearby creek, and spread to rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, eventually spreading as far as Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, 300 miles away.

A June 2014 work order for a planned cleanup noted the old mine had not been accessible since 1995 when the entrance partially collapsed, CTV News reported as part of the findings released to the media:

"This condition has likely caused impounding of water behind the collapse," the report says. "Conditions may exist that could result in a blowout of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediment from inside the mine, which contain concentrated heavy metals."

A May 2015 action plan by an EPA contractor, Environmental Restoration LLC, also flags the potential for a spill.

According to CTV, a 71-page safety plan has only a few lines describing what to do in the event of a spill: "Locate the source and stop the flow if it could be done safely, begin containment and recovery of the spilled materials, and alert downstream sanitary districts and drinking water systems as needed."

The documents sent to the media were heavily redacted. 680 News reported that "Among the items blacked out was a line specifying whether workers were required to have phones that could work at the remote site, at an elevation of 11,000 feet."

There are currently three investigations ongoing as to how EPA caused the disaster. The organization says results from water testing show contamination has returned to pre-spill levels.