Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials missed key signs its intentional breach of Colorado’s Gold King Mine would cause a major blowout that ultimately flooded two major rivers with three million gallons of toxic mine waste.
A Daily Caller News Foundation review of the evidence found EPA workers made at least two major mistakes when they intentionally penetrated Gold King Mine in August 2015: The agency-led crew didn’t test for pressure in the mine mouth and mistakenly dug at the bottom, rather than the top of the mine.
“The underestimation of the water pressure in the Gold King Mine workings is believed to be the most significant factor relating to the blowout,” the EPA’s Internal Review of the spill said.
It’s still unclear why the agency didn’t conduct pressure tests, especially considering it knew the mine was pressurized.
The agency’s work the day of the breach was intended to “relieve hydrologic pressure,” Brent Lewis, who heads the Bureau of Land Management’s abandoned mine program, wrote in an email to other BLM officials. Lewis sent the email after speaking with Steve Way — EPA’s project manager at the mine.
But an EPA spokeswoman contradicted that claim, telling TheDCNF, “work goals for Aug. 4 and 5, 2015, were to assess the site conditions and to help prepare for a decision on future work.” Yet, that day, EPA workers decided to breach the mine.
Meanwhile, Way was reportedly on vacation the day of the breach. Even so, Gold King Mine’s interim on-scene coordinator, Hays Griswold, knew the mine was pressurized.
“I personally knew it could be holding back a lot of water and I believe the others in the group knew as well,” he wrote in an Oct. 28 email obtained by the House Committee on Natural Resources. “This is why I was approaching this adit as if it were full … I also knew there was some pressure behind the blockage but not much.”
Griswold’s revelation, however, was omitted from reports on the spill. EPA’s Internal Review even contradicted his claim. The on-site EPA crew believed there was “no or low mine water pressurization,” the report said.
“[T]here is still no explanation for the EPA’s failure to conduct hydrostatic testing before excavating the Gold King Mine adit,” the Natural Resources committee wrote in a recent report.
“In fact, the agencies have not even provided documentation that EPA actually considered testing the pressure prior to beginning work,” the report continued.
Another major cause of the blowout was the EPA’s “erroneous conclusions” that a drainage pipe was six feet above the mine entrance’s floor, the committee reported. The agency falsely determined water filled the entrance above even with drainage pipe.
It’s unclear how the EPA came to this conclusion, which led the agency to dig at the bottom of the water-filled mine and unleash millions of gallons of toxic mine wastewater.
The installation at that height is “inconsistent with the purpose of the drainage pipe,” as it wouldn’t be able to properly drain the mine, the committee report said.
Plans show the pipe was to be positioned at the bottom of the mine entrance, according to the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, which installed the drain. Yet, EPA workers assumed the opposite — that the pipe was at the top of the mine adit.
EPA’s website still contends workers were “excavating above the old” mine entrance when “pressurized water began leaking above the mine tunnel.”
Consequently, workers dug at the bottom of the highly pressurized mine, which blew out 880,000 pounds of metals, like lead and arsenic, into drinking water for Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation.
This is the second article in TheDCNF’s series on Gold King Mine. The DCNF previously showed the incident clearly wasn’t an accident. In the following days, the investigation will detail the EPA’s shifting accounts of what happened, and questionable aspects of an independent review of the spill.
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