An independent investigation was formed to determine how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) caused the Gold King Mine spill, but a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation found the federal department conducting the examination may not have been so independent.
The Department of the Interior (DOI) released its Technical Evaluation report in October, which outlined how the EPA spilled three million gallons of wastewater into crucial western rivers. But the report omitted critical details, possibly due to conflicts of interest.
DOI was involved with numerous aspects of the work going on at Gold King Mine before and after the spill, and the mine engineering expert tasked with reviewing the department’s report had serious misgivings about the integrity of the investigation.
A Peer Reviewer Was Furious With DOI’s Report
Army Corps of Engineers peer reviewer Richard Olsen – the only peer-reviewer employed outside DOI – had serious problems with the scope of the department’s report. Olsen also pressed DOI on possible political machinations aimed at keeping federal investigators from digging too deep into the EPA-caused mine blowout.
“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,” Olsen wrote in his official comments on the DOI’s technical report on the spill.
Olsen also criticized DOI for failing to investigate the EPA’s negligence and decision-making process surrounding the agency’s Gold King Mine work and spill.
“The report discusses field observations by EPA (and why they continued digging), but does not describe why a change in EPA field coordinators caused the urgency to start digging out the plug rather than wait for [Bureau of Reclamation] technical input as prescribed by the EPA project leader,” Olsen wrote.
Outside of Olsen’s comments, “the scope of the Technical Evaluation appears to have been carefully crafted to avoid asking the most important questions about EPA’s decision and actions,” the House Committee on Natural Resources wrote in a recent report that detailed the “shifting accounts” offered by government officials about the cause of the mine blowout.
Likewise, internal emails reviewed by TheDCNF show DOI likely only included Olsen’s comments out of fear he would withhold his signature from the review were the comments omitted.
The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) – the DOI agency commissioned for the Gold King Mine report – was secretly ordered to “stay clear” of such aspects in its investigation, internal emails reveal.
Olsen’s questions on who issued that command were ignored by DOI officials looking to get him to sign off on their technical review of the spill. Those emails were only disclosed after DOI withheld them for months.
Yet, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the Natural Resources committee that DOI would, in fact, investigate her agency for negligence and that the EPA wasn’t “defining the scope of work.”
DOI Secretary Sally Jewell told the committee the report “did exactly what the agreement with the EPA was,” after the review was released.
Why Did the EPA Select DOI?
EPA selected DOI to conduct an independent review of the blowout, even though it was involved with numerous aspects of the Gold King Mine project, both before and after the spill.
DOI “never should have been selected to conduct an independent review of the disaster, because nearly every branch of DOI was either involved in the Gold King Mine project or affected by the blowout, or both,” the Natural Resources committee report said.
DOI branches involved include BOR, which “received thousands of dollars from EPA” for projects related to Gold King Mine, and later released water from a dam to dilute contamination from the blowout, according to the committee report.
The DOI review’s lead author, Michael Gobla, “had conflicts of interest that should have precluded [his] participation in any ‘independent’ review of the spill,” the committee added.
Gobla even described his own involvement with the Gold King Mine project within the independent report he was writing. He was also at the site just days after the blowout, but before being selected to lead the review.
“His involvement in EPA’s Gold King Mine project prior to the disaster and his on-site role assisting EPA with its response to the disaster … unquestionably should have disqualified him from participating in DOI’s Technical Evaluation,” the Natural Resources committee report said.
This is the fourth in TheDCNF’s investigation of the Gold King Mine disaster. TheDCNF previously reported that the incident was not an accident, reported on the mistakes the EPA could have prevented, and reported the inconsistencies in the agency’s explanation following the spill.
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