Meet The Man Who Caused The EPA’s Gold King Mine Disaster

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Ethan Barton Editor in Chief
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Environmental Protection Agency worker Hays Griswold was in charge at the Gold King Mine in August 2015 when a three-million gallon flood of dangerous mine waste — including 880,000 pounds of toxic elements like lead and arsenic — poured into Colorado’s Animus River, turning it yellow for nearly a week and poisoning the drinking water source for residents of three states and the Navajo Nation.

But somebody contrived to remove critical details, including Griswold’s name, from an “independent” review of the disaster, according to documents obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation. Officials at the Department of the Interior – and perhaps EPA – had access to the draft. (RELATED: EPA’s Gold King Mine Blowout Was No Accident)

Griswold was temporarily the On-Scene Coordinator at the mine because the crew’s usual chief, OSC Steven Way, was on vacation and had left orders “not to touch” the mine’s entrance, a draft of the Bureau of Reclamation’s (BOR) review of the yellow flood obtained by TheDCNF shows. The EPA has argued Griswold was following Way’s orders, but neither official has been punished.

Nate Snorteland, an Army Corps of Engineer peer reviewer, had little doubt about what happened.

“EPA immediately began to remove material from the face at the Gold King Mine,” Snorteland wrote in his comments on the draft review, according to the documents reviewed by TheDCNF. “This is a serious oversight or poor decision that may have been the key factor in the blowout.”

Yet the final report omitted those key details. It’s remains unclear whether Griswold was following a superior’s directions when he contravened Way’s order or acted on his own accord. An EPA spokeswoman declined to comment. (RELATED: EPA Advisor Wrote ‘Independent’ Review Of Gold King Mine Spill)

Instead, BOR’s peer reviewers — including Richard Olsen, the lead Army Corps reviewer — determined that communication breakdowns were a critical cause of the spill. Olsen’s comments were only included after he threatened to withhold his signature from the report. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: Gold King Mine Investigators Secretly Ordered To ‘Stay Clear’ Of EPA’s Negligence)

In fact, another document sent by Olsen and obtained by TheDCNF suggested that the report expand on the communication breakdown, saying “this authority and communication breakdown with the EPA between the OSC and temporary OSC may be a significant part of the issues associated with the blowout failure and should be highlighted in the conclusions of Reclamation’s report.”

BOR was not intended to go into detail such as internal communications, the agency argued in the report.

“The bottom line is this: Reclamation is not an investigative agency,” BOR spokesman Dan DuBray told TheDCNF. “In this case, it was contracted to provide a technical evaluation of the underlying causes of the incident and not conduct some investigation into communications or the decision chain which led to the incident.”

The EPA’s inspector general (IG) is conducting an investigation, he also noted. Still, the ongoing investigation does not diminish the importance of Griswold’s violation of the written orders.

“The decision of the second OSC to proceed with opening of the adit despite these instructions seems to be one of the major reasons for the failure, but this fact is only indirectly mentioned here,” Isaac Stephen – another Army Corps peer reviewer – wrote in another document obtained by TheDCNF. “If the first OSC’s instructions had been followed … the blowout could have potentially been prevented.”

The EPA provided a partial explanation for Griswold’s actions nearly two months after BOR’s report.

“The work being conducted on August 4 and 5 was completely consistent with the direction provided by [Way] prior to his leaving for vacation,” the agency claimed in an addendum to its separate Gold King Mine investigation.

Emailed instructions directly contradict the EPA’s addendum, and the agency only established that argument after a spokeswoman and two EPA supervisors conducted a strange interview with the two OSCs, which the House Committee on Natural Resources argued obstructed the IG’s investigation. (RELATED: Is EPA Trying To Sabotage Its Gold King Mine Blowout Investigation?)

“Mr. Griswold followed neither the existing work plan, nor Mr. Way’s emailed instructions,” the Natural Resources committee wrote in a report. “For instance, the EPA crew, under Mr. Griswold’s direction, excavated” toward the mine’s entrance, even though “Mr. Way had specifically directed that this should not be done unless there was a pump ‘prepared and available.’”

The pump was not on site the day of the spill. (RELATED: EPA’s Gold King Mine Explanations Leave Gaping Holes)

Regardless, no one has been punished for the disaster, which likely will ultimately cost state and federal taxpayers millions of dollars. The disaster also negatively affected the area’s farming and tourism industries and may even be linked to suicides. (RELATED: Navajo Prez Says Suicides Spiked After EPA’s Gold King Mine Disaster)

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