Gov’t Report Raises Serious Questions About EPA’s Handling Of Gold King Mine

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The Department of Interior (DOI) has released its technical review of the EPA-caused Colorado mine spill that unleashed 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into nearby waterways last August. Interior found the spill could have been avoided had EPA been more careful.

More importantly, is the report’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineer reviewer notes the “actual cause of failure is some combination of issues related to EPA internal communications, administrative authorities, and/or a break in the decision path.”

In fact, the Corps reviewer blasted the Interior’s review for being “non-specific regarding the source of information concerning EPA documents and interviews with EPA employees and the onsite contractor.”

“[The Corps] believes that the investigation and report should have described what happened internal within EPA that resulted in the path forward and eventually caused the failure,” according to a section of DOI’s report describing the Corps concerns.

“The report discusses field observations by EPA (and why they continued digging), but does not describe why a change in EPA field coordinators caused the urgency to start digging out the plug rather than wait for [Bureau of Reclamation] technical input as prescribed by the EPA project leader,” the report said of the Corps’ concerns.

In August, EPA workers using heavy equipment caused a blowout at the Gold King Mine near the town of Silverton, Colo. More than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater eventually made its way into the Animas River and eventually moved into waterways in Utah and New Mexico.

Republican lawmakers, state officials and Native American tribes levied heavy criticism on the EPA for the spill in the days that followed. The EPA certainly took responsibility, but tried to mitigate the blame by saying the mine blowout was small compared to mine wastewater leaks in the region that happen every year.

“Based upon 2009 – 2014 flow data, approximately 330 million gallons of contaminated water was being discharged from mines in the Watershed each year to Cement Creek and the Animas River – 100 times more than the estimated release from the Gold King Mine on August 5,” EPA Chief Gina McCarthy told Congress last month.

Republicans, however, criticized EPA for not acting quickly enough to notify local officials of the mine blowout and for not firing those responsible.

Navajo Nation was furious with EPA for allegedly trying to swindle them out of future claims for spill damages and then providing tribal farmers with tainted water. The tribe has threatened to sue the EPA over the incident.

EPA eventually released its own assessment of the spill, claiming a mine blowout would have happened anyways. The report did acknowledge agency workers could have drilled into the mine instead of using an excavator to open it up.

Interior’s report, however, contradicts EPA’s claim that a mine blowout was imminent regardless of EPA actions. Interior investigators found that had the EPA opened the Gold King Mine the exact same way it opened the Red and Bonita Mine in 2011, a blowout would have been prevented.

“A critical difference between the Gold King plan and that used at the Red and Bonita Mine in 2011 was the use in the latter case of a drill rig to bore into the mine from above and directly determine the level of the mine pool prior to excavating backfill at the portal,” Interior noted.

“Although this was apparently considered at Gold King, it was not done,” the report found. “Had it been done, the plan to open the mine would have been revised, and the blowout would not have occurred.”

EPA and other agencies also made flawed assumptions about the amount of wastewater filling up in the mine.

“It was incorrectly concluded that the water level inside the mine was at a similar elevation [six feet above the adit floor], a few feet below the top of the adit roof,” Interior reported. “This error resulted in development of a plan to open the mine in a manner that appeared to guard against blowout, but instead led directly to the failure.”

As for the Corps’ concerns over EPA’s internal handling of the Gold King operation, the Interior said such worries were beyond the scope of its report. Interior’s report is only a technical review of the mine blowout and not meant to assign liability.

EPA requested the Department of Interior report, Technical Evaluation of the Gold King Mine Incident, to provide an independent assessment of factors that contributed to the August 5, 2015 Gold Mine incident. EPA will carefully review the report,” EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

This report in combination with the findings of EPA’s internal review of the incident, will help inform EPA’s ongoing efforts to work safely and effectively at mine sites as we carry out our mission to protect human health and the environment,” Grantham said

The EPA inspector general’s office is conducting its own investigation into the spill which could assign blame for the spill.

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