Obama administration officials called the Gold King Mine disaster in Colorado an “accident,” but an analysis from The Daily Caller News Foundation of government documents and public statements makes clear the disaster was anything but accidental.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) intentionally opened up the abandoned mine, which unleashed 3 million gallons of toxic waste into nearby rivers that residents of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation depend upon for drinking water.
Agency administrator Gina McCarthy even called the mine spill an “unfortunate accident” in an Aug. 11, 2015, speech on the matter, but EPA officials have since been more cautious in describing the event.
McCarthy, for example, avoided labeling the spill an “accident” in her prepared testimony before House lawmakers in September, instead calling the spill an “unfortunate incident.” EPA spokesmen have also steered clear of calling Gold King Mine an accident.
“As Administrator McCarthy has said, ‘This was a tragic and unfortunate incident, and EPA has taken responsibility to ensure that it is cleaned up appropriately,’” an agency spokeswoman told TheDCNF.
EPA’s internal report avoided using the term “accident” and called the mine blowout an “incident.” And another top agency official testifying before lawmakers in September echoed McCarthy’s refrain that the spill was an “unfortunate incident.”
“Information the agency has received to date from both external and internal reviews of the matter has revealed no evidence that the blowout was in any way intentional,” the spokeswoman said.
New evidence tells a different story. A newly released email between Obama administration officials following the August disaster shows EPA workers intentionally breached Gold King Mine.
“There was nothing unintentional about EPA’s actions with regard to breaching the mine,” Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop told Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Sally Jewell during a hearing in early March. “They fully intended to dig out the plug and breach it.”
Bishop’s statement stems from a recently publicized email between Interior Department officials. Brent Lewis, who heads the Bureau of Land Management’s abandoned mine program, wrote to colleagues that he had spoken to EPA’s project manager and got the following information:
“On 8/5/2015, the EPA was attempting to relieve hydrologic pressure behind a naturally collapsed adit/portal of the Gold King Mine,” reads an attachment to Lewis’ Aug. 7 email, obtained by investigators for the House Committee on Natural Resources.
“The EPA’s plan was to slowly drain and treat enough mine water in order to access the inner mine working and assess options for controlling its discharge,” reads the attachment. “While removing small portions of the natural plug, the material catastrophically gave-way and released the mine water.”
Lewis’ email directly contradicts Jewell’s testimony that the spill was an accident. Most recently, Jewell maintained the spill was an “accident” when Bishop confronted him with Lewis’ email. Jewell stuck to the story she gave Bishop and his committee when she first called the spill an “accident.”
While the EPA intentionally breached Gold King Mine, it’s likely they did not believe their actions would set loose 3 million gallons of toxic mine wastewater. Had the agency tested the mine for pressure and not dug directly into its entrance, the blowout might not have occurred.
It’s also unclear why EPA decided to breach a mine they suspected to be pressurized without the proper equipment. Workers failed to bring a pump and a special drain pipe the day the mine was breached.
These major oversights were included in EPA and Interior reports on the incident, but House investigators argue agencies attempted “to conceal incompetence and negligence” surrounding the spill.
The EPA-caused mine blowout contaminated rivers with 880,000 pounds of dangerous metals, such as lead and arsenic. The agency has since claimed the river is safe for humans, despite state and local complaints.
This is the first article in a four-part DCNF series investigating the Gold King Mine spill. In the following days, TheDCNF will highlight the major mistakes the EPA made that could have prevented the disaster, the agency’s shifting accounts of what happened, and questionable aspects of an independent review of the spill.
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