Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials have done little to clear up unexplained aspects surrounding the Gold King Mine blowout. In fact, the agency has given shifting accounts of how three million gallons of mine waste was spilled into drinking water for three states and the Navajo Nation.
The Daily Caller News Foundation compiled these aspects of how EPA officials handled the Colorado Gold King Mine spill, which contaminated nearby rivers with 880,000 pounds of toxic metals like lead and arsenic in August, 2015.
Not only did EPA workers inexplicably build a channel for draining mine waste, the agency crew opened up the mine without the proper equipment on-site that day. EPA’s also been interfering with the agency inspector general’s investigation of the spill, and released “plans” for the mine that are misleading and riddled with errors.
1. The EPA Built Systems To Direct Leaked Water
Just before the EPA crew caused the Gold King Mine blowout, workers built a dirt mound and a channel in front of the mine’s plug, which could have led a potential leak to a nearby ditch.
Yet EPA officials claimed breaching Gold King Mine and spilling the wastewater were both unintentional.
Why they built the mound and channel and “what exactly they expected to happen remains unclear,” a recent House Committee on Natural Resources report said.
EPA said the mound was a ramp for a trackhoe, but tracks from the machine are absent in agency photos. Photos also show both equipment and crew were backed away from the mine just before the blowout.
“Instead, by that point, the mound was functioning as a berm that might contain or control water released from the mine,” the report said.
“None of the crew or machinery is visible in the excavated … area, there are no equipment tracks on top of the berm and the initial spurt of water … is perfectly captured” in a photograph taken minutes before the blowout, the report said.
The Department of the Interior’s (DOI) independent investigation of the spill confirmed the channel was built, but didn’t explain why EPA workers decided to build it.
2. Required Equipment Was Missing
The EPA planned to install a pump and a special pipe, called a stinger, to drain water at the site, according to DOI’s review. An EPA report later confirmed that the crew was following that planthe day the mine blew out.
EPA’s On-Scene Coordinator, Steven Way – who was reportedly on vacation when the mine was breached – ordered the pump must be “prepared and available” in an email.
Neither the pump nor the stinger, however, were on site when the mine blew out, officials present when the disaster began told the House committee.
“Quite simply, the EPA crew could not have been executing the plan … because the stinger and pump needed to dewater the mine were not on-site on Aug. 5, 2015,” the committee report said. “It is unclear why the crew would have dug into the plug (thus destabilizing it) without having the necessary equipment to proceed with the plan immediately.”
3. The EPA ‘Jeopardized’ An Independent Investigation
The EPA also may have impeded its internal watchdog’s independent review of the incident.
An agency report “was based on a Dec. 2, 2015 interview EPA officials conducted with the two EPA on-scene coordinators who were in charge of the Gold King Mine site,” which may have “jeopardized” the agency’s inspector general’s (IG) investigation.
But the EPA didn’t enlist independent investigators or technical experts for that interview. Instead, the on-scene coordinators met with three agency employees “with close ties to the agency’s public response to the Gold King Mine spill,” including a spokeswoman, Republican Reps. Rob Bishop from Utah and Louie Gohmert of Texas wrote in a letter to the IG.
The EPA didn’t explain who selected those three interviewers, nor did it provide a “basis for their selection given their apparent lack of investigative credentials, technical expertise or objectivity,” the committee report said.
Additionally, the interview broke from standard investigative practices and met with both on-scene coordinators simultaneously. Typically, such interviews are conducted separately so statements can be independently verified.
“The circumstances surrounding this interview are so troubling that it is not farfetched to assume the interview was more of an off-the-record attempt to reconcile diverging accounts than an effort to honestly and transparently answer questions,” the report said.
4. Released Plans Are Misleading And Full Of Errors
EPA officials have not released any drawings or diagrams of the agency’s plan to breach the mine before the spill occurred. To date, the agency has only released hand drawings of its operations created after the spill, which are notably not drawn to scale.
That diagram “raises more questions than it answers, including why there were apparently no scaled drawings in use at the site of an engineering project,” the committee report said, adding some aspects of the drawing are “curiously ambiguous.”
The diagram shows the EPA was digging above the drainage pipes, which were about even with the mine entrance’s water level. The agency’s crew, however, actually dug into the drainage pipes, which were, contrary to the EPA’s erroneous assumption, well beneath the water.
DOI’s independent review then created its own images of the EPA’s planned work based on the EPA’s flawed drawing. It also neglected to mention the original diagram was made after the blowout.
That review’s “lack of scaled, or at least accurate, drawings is disconcerting given DOI’s emphasis on the purported technical nature of its” report, the committee report said.
This is the third article in TheDCNF’s series investigating the Gold King Mine. TheDCNF will next highlight questionable aspects of an independent review of the spill. Previously, TheDCNF showed the incident was not an accident and pointed out critical mistakes the EPA madeleading up to the spill.
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