Jon Austria / The Daily Times / AP

EPA chief: Colorado mine spill 'pains me'

Agency came under fire after federal workers accidentally unleashed a toxic spill that contaminated a tributary

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday her department takes full responsibility for spilling 3 million gallons of mining waste into a southwest Colorado river turning it orange, adding it "pains me to no end."

Gina McCarthy made the comments as her agency came under increased scrutiny after federal and contract workers accidentally unleashed the spill last week while inspecting the abandoned Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado. On Tuesday, the state's two senators, Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner, along with Representative Scott Tipton called on McCarthy to visit the contaminated site. "The individuals, families and businesses impacted by EPA's accident deserve nothing less," the three politicians wrote in a joint statement. 

The contaminated water that flowed into a tributary of the Animas and San Juan rivers contained high levels of arsenic, lead and other potentially toxic heavy metals. McCarthy expressed regret that the spill occurred and said her agency has "added responsibility here." 

"It is really a tragic and very unfortunate incident, and EPA is taking responsibility to ensure that that spill is cleaned up," McCarthy said. "I am absolutely, deeply sorry that this ever happened."

The accident comes at a sensitive time for the EPA, a frequent and favorite target of conservatives and pro-business groups. McCarthy spoke Tuesday as part of an event on the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan, which mandates steep greenhouse gas emission cuts from U.S. power plants.

State and local officials in the areas affected by the spill have characterized EPA's initial response as too slow and too small. It took about 24 hours to first notify some downstream communities of the accident and the agency originally underestimated the volume of the spill.

The plume of pollution has since flowed at least 100 miles downstream to New Mexico, where towns and cities have been forced to close their intake valves to protect public water supplies.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Tuesday he is closely monitoring EPA's spill response.

"This has and will continue to lead to significant economic damage to local businesses, farmers, tribes and residents," said Inhofe, R-Okla. "I will work within the committee and with my colleagues in Congress to ensure the EPA is held accountable to this grave incident and that those impacted are provided the necessary support to move forward."

McCarthy pledged a thorough review of the EPA's role in the disaster, but said her current focus is on properly managing the response. So far, there have been no reported cases of anyone's health being harmed by the spilled heavy metals, she said.

"It takes time to review and analyze data, so I understand people's frustration, but we have our researchers and our scientists working around the clock," McCarthy said. "Our commitment is to get this right and make sure we are protecting public health."

Al Jazeera and the Associated Press

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