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EPA back in the cross hairs as Animas River spill comes under scrutiny

The orange sludge that poisoned a Colorado river is a hot topic again this week amid a series of hearings into how the EPA accidentally caused the spill.

The torrent of orange sludge that poisoned a Colorado river last month will be a hot topic again in Congress and the courts this week, the subject of at least one high-profile lawsuit and a series of hearings into how the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally triggered the deluge.

The saga began on Aug. 5, when the EPA tried to slurp out the poisoned water inside a dormant gold mine in southwestern Colorado. The crew misjudged the pressure, the EPA admits, and the result was an 80-mile ribbon of pollution, which flowed through three states and left a trail of heavy toxic metals in its wake.

Now, four separate congressional committees are scheduled to probe the disaster, starting Wednesday with the House Science Committee. At the same time, the Navajo Nation, which depends on 200-miles of river allegedly fouled by the spill, is expected to file a massive lawsuit against the agency.

They’ve hired a high-profile lawyer -- the prosecutor who pinned fraud charges on former Enron executive Kenneth Lay -- and they’re backed by a famous environmental activist: Erin Brockovich, the consumer advocate made famous by an Oscar-winning movie bearing her name.

Related: How did the Animas River spill really happen?

"This is a story of massive regulatory failure over many years." '

On Tuesday, Brockovich toured Navajo country with tribe president Russell Begaye. “The Navajo Nation has been culturally and economically devastated by the impact of the Gold King Mine Spill and we need help to address this crisis,” Begaye said in a statement, thanking Brockovich for raising awareness of “the plight of our people.”

The EPA was not immediately available for comment on the hearings or the lawsuit, but it’s sought to ease fears in the weeks since the spill. The damaged river -- known as the Animas -- has been re-opened to boating, swimming, and even fishing. The EPA also says that the most worrisome pollutants -- arsenic and lead, which respectively peaked at 300 times and 3,500 times the normal levels -- have returned to “pre-event” conditions.

That’s not quite the same as saying the river is clean. Plus, the Navajo are skeptical of the federal claims. They point out that the EPA initially underestimated the spill by two million gallons. And they’re planning to run their own monitoring program until further notice.

RELATED: Fallout from toxic sludge disaster taints EPA

Congress is expected to take up the question of what caused the spill, and how the clean-up should be handled. The hearings will feature witnesses from the Navajos, the downstream town of Durango, Colorado, and the EPA itself, among other groups. Todd Henis, the owner of the mine that held the toxic water, is not scheduled to testify. But in an interview with MSNBC, he blamed the EPA and predicted even worse disasters to come.

“This is a story of massive regulatory failure over many years,” he said, warning of continued toxic build-up in the mines surrounding his own. “If there’s a seismic event or just too much pressure, we will have a blow-out that’s not three million gallons, as happened at Gold King, but an order of magnitude that’s a thousand times more water.”

He’s especially concerned about the integrity of the plugs in the mines surrounding his own, adding: “If those concrete dams break, it’s all over for that river for months.”

The spill is already a costly and ill-timed error for the agency that is supposed to be Mother Nature's premier federal defender, coming just two days after President Obama announced his controversial Clean Power Plan. The EPA is the muscle behind that plan, as well as much of the administration's broader effort to combat global warming and defend the natural world -- a fact that Republicans will most likely exploit in the hearings.

Some have already begun to use the spill to support a wider political attack on the EPA. Republican Sen. John Barrasso, for example, is chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which has scheduled a Sept. 16 hearing into the spill's impacts on the Navajo and the Southern Ute tribe of Colorado.

"They've gone way beyond their authority," the Wyoming senator recently told the Associated Press. "Where they do have authority, and should be working, they have poisoned the environment and poisoned the rivers."

But Democrats are also poised to use the toxic spotlight for their own purposes. Nationwide, the government estimates that there are 500,000 inactive or abandoned mines like Gold King, silently filling with toxic water, or already leaking into streams and rivers. In fact, the headwaters of an astounding 40% of watersheds in the U.S are already contaminated by mining run-off, according to the EPA.

Mining companies have no responsibility to pay for the clean-up, but that’s something Congress could change. The Obama administration's 2016 budget proposal includes a fee on new hardrock mines, which would go to cleanup work on old sites across the country. A similar program has already been successful in the coal industry. 

In the meantime, the EPA is continuing to monitor the Gold King mine, which is still leaking hundreds of gallons of orange water a minute. For the time being, that water is collected in a series of sediment ponds. But those aren’t expected to last through the winter.