Gold King Mine Report Botched By The Mine’s Federal Part-Owner

Ethan Barton | Investigative Reporter

A botched “independent” review of the Gold King Mine spill was led by the Department of the Interior (DOI) – a federal agency that owned part of the mine, among other conflicts of interest, a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation has found.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – the very agency DOI was investigating for causing the spill – once considered holding Interior liable for pollution, likely for decades of acid waste leaking from Gold King’s lower level. EPA and DOI also frequently collaborated on projects at Gold King Mine and across the region.

An EPA crew breached Colorado’s Gold King Mine, which flooded three million gallons of acid waste into the Animas River. The August 2015 flood, which poisoned drinking water for three states and the Navajo Nation, included an estimated 880,000 pounds of dangerous metals like lead and arsenic. Now, EPA wants to make Gold King and 47 other nearby mines a Superfund site.

The EPA selected DOI’s Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to lead the review despite the latter’s long involvement at the site and elsewhere across the mine-rich region. Also, DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was active in the area and often worked closely with the EPA, and even owns a portion of the Gold King Mine’s lower level. (RELATED: EPA Advisor Wrote ‘Independent’ Review Of Gold King Mine Spill)

“The Gold King Mine blowout is no mystery to Interior,” House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop told TheDCNF. “They have pretended to play an insignificant role, but nearly all of DOI’s bureaus, and especially the Bureau of Land Management, actively worked on this and related mines in the region.”

Bishop, a Utah Republican, continued, saying “to act as if one of its agencies, the Bureau of Reclamation, could be totally ‘independent’ in reviewing the disaster is mind-boggling.”

The review has been highly criticized for not placing responsibility for the disaster where it belongs.

In a further twist, internal emails obtained by TheDCNF show EPA considered holding BLM at least partially liable for pollution in the region under the Superfund law last year, though the bureau ultimately was let off the hook.

“Les – EPA is indicating that they are now concerned about the potential for BLM to possibly be a responsible party at the Gold King Mine Site,” Thomas Luebke wrote to Leslie Stone – both BOR employees – in an Aug. 21 email.

“Could you get back to your contact at BLM, indicate this potential concern from EPA, and ask if this possibility is real, and if so, does it give BLM pause to be associated with this independent review?” he continued.

Additionally, BLM officials were shocked when EPA officials announced their intent to issue a document that would force BLM to provide information about hazardous substances at a potential Superfund site.

“I must admit that we were completely surprised by this development,” Ann Umphres, a DOI solicitor’s office attorney, wrote in a September 2011 email to EPA employees, calling the legal letter “unnecessary.”

“BLM has already shared all of the information it has regarding this site with EPA through its working partnership,” she continued in the letter obtained by Bishop’s panel. “If there is something more EPA believes it needs, we are happy to work with you to provide it in a coordinated cooperative way.”

Umphres was concerned that the letter’s “legal implications” would threaten relationships with EPA and BLM staff. Her shock reflected BLM’s extremely close ties to the EPA.

“BLM has a very long history of more than a decade of working in partnership with EPA … to present a fairly united front to the community as federal partners attempting to achieve improvement to the water quality in the Animas water shed,” Umphres said in the letter.

But the EPA wasn’t entirely unjustified in considering holding BLM liable because the bureau is a part-owner of the American Tunnel – Gold King Mine’s lower level – which has contributed to long-term pollution in the region.

Sunnyside Gold Corporation, another part-owner, installed bulkheads in the tunnel, which ultimately were major contributors to the spill since they increased both the water and pressure levels in the Gold King Mine.

The EPA is no longer considering holding BLM liable as a polluter, DOI spokeswoman Amanda Degroff told TheDCNF. That decision came sometime after DOI was selected to lead the investigation.

Other parties potentially responsible for pollution in the region or taxpayers could be charged for Superfund-related costs that would have instead fallen on BLM. Abandoned mines are among the most expensive Superfund cleanups, according to the Government Accountability Office.

BLM’s ties to the region and the EPA are long and close. BLM conducted and commissioned numerous studies around the areas mines for decades, and is a signer to a Memorandum of Understanding with the EPA.

In one instance, BLM, the EPA and a Colorado agency – acting collectively as “the agencies” – compelled an area mine owner to conduct environmental studies used to build a case for a Superfund designation, documents obtained by Bishop’s panel show. That was just one of the agencies’ many attempts to scare locals into accepting a Superfund designation for the region, TheDCNF previously reported.

BLM officials were even at Gold King Mine when the EPA erroneously concluded that drainage pipes were installed at the top of the mine – another major contributor to the spill – according to an EPA document obtained by the Bishop committee.

In fact, Brent Lewis, who heads BLM’s abandoned mine program, has worked in the region for years, and has frequently worked with the EPA. Lewis indicated just days after the spill that he had spoken with an EPA manager and knew that the agency intentionally breach the mine.

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