Internal documents released late Friday show that managers at the Environmental Protection Agency were aware of the potential for a catastrophic "blowout" at Gold King Mine, The Associated Press reports.
Earlier this month, workers contracted by the EPA to clean up an abandoned mine accidentally unleashed three billion gallons of toxic, heavy metal-laced water into the Animas river, turning the popular recreational waterway an acrid shade of orange. Following weeks of prodding from The Associated Press and other media organisations, the EPA has finally released documents that shed a little more light on what officials knew leading up to the botched clean-up.
Says The Associated Press:
Among the documents is a June 2014 work order for a planned cleanup that noted the old mine had not been accessible since 1995, when the entrance partially collapsed.
"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 for the mine also noted the potential for a blowout. The plan was produced by Environmental Restoration LLC, a private contractor working for the EPA.
It's not clear whether the EPA took additional precautions to prepare for such a blowout, nor do the documents include any account of what happened immediately before or after the spill, according to The Associated Press. There are at least three ongoing investigations into how exactly the EPA triggered the disaster which sent a toxic plume travelling 300 miles downriver to Lake Powell.
Fortunately, the contamination seems to be quickly dissipating as heavy metals sink into sediments at the bottom of the riverbed. Over the past several weeks, the EPA has constructed a series of 'containment pods' which catch and settle toxic sediments flowing out of the mine before the water feeds into the Animas.