EXCLUSIVE: Gold King Mine Investigators Secretly Ordered To ‘Stay Clear’ Of EPA’s Negligence

Ethan Barton | Investigative Reporter

A Department of the Interior manager refused to say who ordered agency investigators to “stay clear” of the Environmental Protection Agency’s negligence when it spilled 3 million gallons of mine waste into drinking water, according to internal emails.

The Bureau of Reclamation – a DOI agency – was tasked to investigate how the EPA blew out Colorado’s Gold King Mine, which caused the Animas River to run yellow with pollution from 880,000 pounds of dangerous metals like lead.

“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,” Richard Olsen, the Army Corps of Engineers official who peer reviewed the resulting report, wrote in an email.

But BOR was ordered to avoid such aspects in their investigation.

“It has been our understanding from the beginning that we were being hired to perform a technical evaluation of the causes,” BOR Technical Service Direct Thomas Luebke replied in an email to Olsen.

“Further, we understood that we were asked to stay clear of the investigative efforts that health with communications/admin and how/why certain decisions were made, since these separate investigative efforts would be performed by others more suitable to that undertaking,” Luebke continued.

But Luebke ignored Olsen’s follow-up email asking who gave that order.

“Unless such an investigation is being performed paralleled to the USBR effort, it would be my thinking that USBR should have performed it,” Olsen wrote.

The emails were obtained by the House Committee on Natural Resources through a Feb. 17 subpoena.

“No document was provided by the USACE or DOI in which Mr. Luebke answered Dr. Olsen’s inquiry about the source of the instruction to ‘stay clear’ of issues pertaining to negligence and EPA’s decision-making process,” the committee wrote in a statement.

The DOI report, however, was supposed to address those very concerns, according to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s September testimony before the committee. She also noted that the EPA wouldn’t be the agency “defining the scope of work” for BOR’s investigation.

Additionally, Olsen — the only non-DOI peer reviewer for BOR’s Gold King Mine investigation — refused to sign his name on the completed report without his additional comments.

“I believe that the investigation and report should describe what happened internal within EPA that resulted in the path forward and eventually caused the failure,” Olsen wrote. “I have serious reservations with the chronology of events internal to EPA from the day of the phone call to USBR and up to the day of the mine failure.”

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