Lawmakers are concerned the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to derail an internal investigation into the agency’s handling of a massive mine wastewater spill in Colorado caused by federal workers just months ago.
Republican chairmen of two key House committees sent a letter to EPA highlighting their concerns agency officials are trying to undermine an investigation by the inspector general’s office in the wake of a recent agency document weaving a “new narrative” about the Gold King Mine blowout in August.
“[T]he Committee on Natural Resources is troubled by the EPA’s disclosure last week that it had recently interviewed two material witnesses to the EPA’s activities at Gold King Mine,” Republican Reps. Rob Bishop of Utah and Louie Gohmert of Texas wrote to the EPA’s inspector general.
“Specifically, the Committee is concerned that the EPA’s interview did not follow best investigative practices and may have interfered with the OIG’s ongoing investigation,” the lawmakers wrote to the agency.
About two weeks ago, the EPA released a document it says is intended to “clarify any misunderstandings about the incident.” The document was based on interviews the agency conducted with two on-scene coordinators “closely associated” with the Gold King Mine blowout in August.
Bishop and Gohmert, however, say the document meant to “clarify” what happened at the mine have only served to obfuscate an internal agency review of the mine blowout being conducted by the inspector general’s office.
“The timing of the interview calls into question the EPA’s respect for the OIG’s ongoing investigation and commitment to ensuring the integrity of witness testimony,” wrote Bishop and Gohmert. “As you know, the EPA’s own guidance states that ‘managers should not question staff about their interactions with the OIG.’”
The lawmakers wrote “it appears likely that a regional supervisor and two officials from headquarters questioned [the on-scene coordinators] about matters central to an ongoing OIG investigation, and may have done so following their interactions with the OIG.”
“Second, the interview was conducted not by independent investigators or technical experts from unaffected regions, but by three EPA employees with close ties to the agency’s public response to the Gold King Mine spill,” according to lawmakers.
The Republicans argue EPA is trying to create a new narrative about the spill that the agency was actually going to open the mine on August 14 — nine days after the mine spill actually occurred. They say this “claim is demonstrably false and is one of multiple claims that diverge from the facts and conclusions presented in reports issued previously by EPA and the Interior Department.”
“The initial EPA Internal Review, for its part, makes no mention of the meeting [one of the coordinators] scheduled for August 14, 2015, and does not indicate that any further technical expertise was needed before proceeding with the plan to reopen the Gold King Mine,” Republicans wrote.
“Moreover, the claim that EPA intended to excavate the adit and then leave it in a disturbed condition for at least nine days before taking further steps is nonsensical,” they added.
In August, EPA workers and contractors working on the Gold King Mine accidentally caused a massive blowout, sending 3 million gallons of mine wastewater into Colorado’s Animas River. The toxic mine waste eventually wound its way through Utah and New Mexico, also contaminating drinking water in Navajo Nation.
The EPA eventually took responsibility for the spill, but so far the agency has not taken action against any employees or contractors involved with the spill. Instead, EPA has given contractors involved with the spill even more money in the weeks after the disastrous event.
An EPA internal review of the incident released in August even claimed a mine blowout “was likely inevitable,” despite the fact contractors ignored “expensive and technically challenging” that could have prevented a blowout.
The Department of the Interior was tasked with conducting an outside review of the incident, which it released last month. Interior faulted EPA for the spill, noting had the agency used “a drill rig to bore into the mine from above” to open Gold King “the mine would have been revised, and the blowout would not have occurred.”
More importantly, the Army Corps of Engineer experts reviewing Interior’s report found it was inadequate because it was “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 Interior’s report describing the Corps concerns.
“We are reviewing the letter and will respond appropriately,” an EPA spokeswoman told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
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