Army Corps of Engineers officials were all but shut out of a critical after-action review of the Gold King Mine spill by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation has found.
Army Corps authority in the review was stripped after a conversation between officials at the EPA and the Department of the Interior (DOI) – the agency that ultimately led, and botched, the Gold King Mine investigation, despite known conflicts of interest.
The review focused on the August, 2015, EPA-caused disaster that saw an agency crew spill three million gallons of toxic mine waste from Colorado’s Gold King Mine, which poisoned drinking water for three states and the Navajo Nation. An estimated 880,000 pounds of lead, arsenic and other dangerous substances was suspended in the flood of mine waste.
The Army Corps was initially supposed to collaborate with DOI on that report, according to emails obtained by the House Committee on Natural Resources.
“DOI will lead with [Army Corps] in support,” Karen Baker said to Lloyd Caldwell – both Army Corps officials – in an Aug. 16 email. EPA “would like DOI and [Army Corps] leads to meet and develop the scope further.”
The EPA wants “to remove itself from directing the process as soon as possible, so as to retain the independent nature of the study,” Baker continued. The EPA stayed involved, and soon downgraded the Army Corps role in the Gold King Mine review.
“Received a call from Dana Stalcup at EPA … they wanted to check in with us on a slightly different approach,” Baker wrote to Caldwell, just hours after her previous email. “EPA has had further exchanges with DOI this afternoon on the scope of the study.”
Stalcup is a director in EPA’s Superfund office.
“DOI is asking to lead study and enlist [Army Corps] support in peer review,” Baker continued. “Apparently, DOI has a study protocol they use to investigate such incidents …”
Army Corps, however, had already developed potential topics to probe, and its lead reviewer was highly experienced in similar investigations, documents obtained by TheDCNF show. DOI’s final scope for the Gold King Mine review, in fact, nixed crucial topics Army Corps planned to examine, including the root cause of the spill.
Additionally, the EPA knew DOI was riddled with numerous conflicts of interest, including owning part of Gold King Mine that had leaked acid waste for decades, TheDCNF previously reported. (RELATED: EPA Advisor Wrote ‘Independent’ Review Of Gold King Mine Spill)
The EPA even considered holding DOI liable for pollution in the region – likely due to that ownership – as recently as Aug. 21, just five days after Baker’s email, documents obtained by TheDCNF show. The EPA has since let DOI off the hook for the pollution, though it’s unclear when that occurred.
Army Corps lead reviewer Richard Olsen was concerned his team would be unable to conduct a thorough review in their downgraded role.
“My worry is the limited scope and responsibilities for the [Army Corps] review,” Olsen wrote to Baker in an Aug. 18 email obtained by TheDCNF. “I had thought the [Army Corps] review effort would have included some overview efforts during the 60 day investigation work as in office progress meetings and a site assessment.”
“This type of review is only as good as statements and figures in a report,” he continued. “If major issues are found during review of a completed report then it’s never possible to redirect or refocus efforts.”
Olsen’s fear was ultimately justified, as he threatened to withhold his signature as a peer reviewer unless his comments criticizing the investigation’s failure to assign blame were added to the report. (RELATED: EPA’s Gold King Mine Explanations Leave Gaping Holes)
Gold King Mine’s reviewers were ordered to “stay clear” of investigating negligence, DOI’s Thomas Luebke told Olsen in an Oct. 16 email. Luebke did not respond when Olsen asked who issued that command.
Regardless, the report was intended to investigate negligence, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the Natural Resources Committee, though Secretary of the Department of the Interior Sally Jewell later told the panel her agency was only supposed to review technical issues.
EPA’s Stalcup later obstructed the agency’s inspector general investigation of Gold King Mine, according to the Natural Resources committee. Stalcup was one of just a few agency officials involved in a strange interview with the EPA chiefs heading Gold King Mine work. (RELATED: Is EPA Trying To Sabotage Its Gold King Mine Blowout Investigation?)
In a related development since the disaster, EPA has proposed to make Gold King and 47 other mines a Superfund site. The spill was the last straw that convinced locals to accept the Superfund listing, though the agency had previously resorted to scare tactics, TheDCNF reported.
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