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EPA Chief: 'Holding Ourselves To A Higher Standard'


Boaters can go back to the Animas River. The Environmental Protection Agency is cleaning up political, as well as environmental damage, after this month's toxic spill at the Gold King Mine in Colorado. An EPA contractor accidently released heavy metals into the Animas River during work to stop toxins from leaching out of the mine, which was shut decades ago. That spill turned the river into an unnatural yellow-orange ribbon that ran through the landscape. Gina McCarthy is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and she joins us now. Administrator McCarthy, thanks very much for being with us.

GINA MCCARTHY: It's great to be here, Scott. Thanks for the invitation.

SIMON: And has that flow of toxins downstream been stopped?

MCCARTHY: Well, actually the plume has been moving down, and it's dissipated. And now the challenge for us is to make sure that we take a look at water quality, see what kind of users can return and then stay there for a while, while we look to make sure that the entire river is cleaned up from any damage associated with the spill. EPA has to take full responsibility, both today and in the future, for this.

SIMON: Do you know yet what and how this happened?

MCCARTHY: Not in detail, Scott, but, I mean, the important thing to remember is EPA was out there taking a look at assessing this mine because we knew that there was contamination from the mining areas entering into these rivers, and it had been going on for decades. But the important thing to remember is that these mining operations do leave wastewater behind, and three million gallons of it is what was released. And we feel terrible about that as the agency that's really working to make sure that this type of contamination doesn't happen. But there is a legacy issue here that we all have to turn our attention to.

SIMON: The legacy issue being - what? - thousands of mines - aren't there? - throughout the West.

MCCARTHY: Thousands of mines are there, yes. This is not by any means a situation that we're going to resolve just to take care of this three million gallon spill. This is thousands of mines in Colorado alone. And there is a need to throw some significant resources to this issue if we expect to get our arms around it and not see anything like this ever happen again.

SIMON: Why did it, according to the reports, take 24 hours for local officials to be informed?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think many were informed, but there is clearly a need for us to do a re-look at whether or not we told everybody we needed to tell in the most expeditious way. We took, I think, our lumps in the beginning for not notifying as quickly as we could, but we certainly took action. And we started our sampling quickly so that we could provide information quickly about when that plume had moved forward and whether or not the water quality was getting better. And the good news is that it is. Now, this is a horrible place for the agency that - whose mission it is to protect public health and the environment, who was solely out there to take a look at this wastewater. And I think folks might have been caught off guard, and we'll just look at it and make sure that we notify more quickly in the future.

SIMON: Governor Martinez of New Mexico asked a question that I want to put to you. Imagine what would happen if a private company caused this waste spill.

MCCARTHY: Yeah, I mean, we would certainly be on them, but I think Governor Martinez knows - and I frankly just got off the phone with her about 20 minutes ago (laughter) - she knows that this is a difficult position for EPA to be in. But I assured her and others that we are holding ourselves to a higher standard than we would hold other responsible parties.

SIMON: I understand the determination as to how and what happened has to be made after considerable investigation in the future, but can you see where a local community would now be concerned if a contractor showed up and said, we're here to clear up that mine site; don't worry, we're from the EPA?

MCCARTHY: (Laughter) I sure can see that EPA has lost some steps here. But let me be clear on a few things, Scott - is we've been doing work in these mines for decades. This is the most unusual circumstance that anyone will see, is EPA in this position. And in the meantime, until we find out exactly what happened here, I have also taken the step of making sure that we take a step back. We stop these mining assessments and cleanup until we're sure that they are not similarly situated for a potential problem, and we work through these issues together.

SIMON: Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Thanks so much for being with us.

MCCARTHY: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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