EXCLUSIVE: Federal ‘Deception’ Hides The True Cause Of The Gold King Mine Disaster

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Ethan Barton Editor in Chief
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Efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Interior to “obfuscate, misdirect and conceal” the truth about the Gold King Mine disaster represent an “indelible stain on the credibility of these agencies,” according to House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop.

Daily Caller News Foundation investigations and findings from the Utah Republican’s committee support Bishop’s claims concerning the August 2015 disaster, when an EPA crew breached the mine, unleashing three million gallons of toxic waste into the Animas River.

The flood carried 880,000 pounds of dangerous metals like lead and arsenic into the river, turning it bright yellow and poisoning drinking water for three states and the Navajo Nation.

“The things EPA did wrong at the Gold King Mine before, during and after the government-made disaster are too long to list,” Bishop told TheDCNF Thursday.

“The entire debacle is an outrageous commentary of negligence and deception by EPA and Interior,” Bishop said. “EPA and Interior’s self-serving efforts to obfuscate, misdirect and conceal is an indelible stain on the credibility of these agencies.”

Three EPA-commissioned reports – one “independently” crafted by DOI – fail to answer crucial questions, and agency involvement and conflicts of interest have obscured many details. The agency crew, for example, violated written orders by digging into a highly pressurized mine, yet those reports didn’t point out who allowed that violation to happen.

TheDCNF’s investigations have shed light on why those reports – particularly the DOI review – failed to fulfill their missions. The results appear to strongly support Bishop’s allegations about the role of federal officials during and after the disaster.

First, DOI worked closely with the EPA in the region and actually owned part of Gold King – the very mine it was supposed to investigate independently. The portion DOI owned leaked acid waste for decades, and the EPA eventually considered holding Interior at least partially liable. (RELATED: EPA Advisor Wrote ‘Independent’ Review Of Gold King Mine Spill)

DOI, however, was forgiven sometime after a conversation with EPA officials that ultimately gave Interior sole authority over the independent investigation. Reviewers were secretly ordered to “stay clear” of investigating topics like negligence, but who issued that command is still unknown, TheDCNF previously reported.

DOI actively followed that order, considering details regarding EPA On-Scene Coordinator Hays Griswold’s failure to follow written orders, which was a major cause of the spill, were removed from the final report, TheDCNF reported. Meanwhile, peer reviewers’ suggestions to expand on those details were disregarded, and Griswold still remains on EPA’s payroll.

Lastly, the Gold King Mine spill convinced residents in nearby Silverton, Colorado to succumb to EPA pressure and request the region be designated as a Superfund site. The agency had been trying to score that designation for decades – even resorting to scare tactics at times – but, until the disaster, locals aggressively opposed EPA officials.

In other words, an EPA-caused environmental incident persuaded locals to give the agency exactly what they sought for at least two decades.

Regardless, the EPA has yet to hold itself accountable for the disaster, and has protected, rather than punished, the agency officials heading Gold King Mine operations. Consequently, no one can be certain who actually ordered the EPA crew to dig out the mine.

“[N]early a year later, not a single EPA or DOI bureaucrat or official has been held accountable, while States and tribes drew the short straw,” Bishop told TheDCNF.

The EPA is “currently awaiting the report on the [IG] investigation,” an agency spokeswoman told TheDCNF.

But that investigation has already taken nearly a year.

Meanwhile, previous spills caused by private companies similar to the Gold King Mine incident resulted in immediate criminal investigations and often jail time for high-ranking officials who weren’t even on site, TheDCNF previously found.

Details revealed in three EPA-commissioned reviews, a Natural Resources committee report, numerous congressional hearings and a New Mexico lawsuit – aside from hundreds of news articles and multiple DCNF investigations – have apparently failed to provide the agency with enough information to take action ahead of the IG’s recommendations.

Those investigations have detailed numerous EPA mistakes and oversights, such as the agency’s failure to measure the mine’s pressure, even though officials knew it was at least somewhat pressurized and received numerous warnings about a potential blowout.

“Please note that many of your findings are inaccurate and inconsistent with EPA’s findings,” the spokeswoman told TheDCNF, without providing specific examples of inaccuracies.

“EPA has been and continues to be committed to transparency throughout the response,” she continued. “We have an area of our website dedicated to Gold King where we provide extensive information and updates.”

Taxpayers shouldn’t feel assured that justice will be served at the end of the IG report. Two congressional committees recently held hearings detailing DOI and EPA employee misconduct that went unpunished, or, in some circumstances, ended with promotions.

Also, Dana Stalcup, a director in EPA’s Superfund office, was involved in two discussions that have altered Gold King Mine investigations. One of those was a strange interview with two Gold King Mine managers, which Bishop’s committee said obstructed the IG’s investigation.

Republican senators, however, have taken action.

John Barrasso of Wyoming and John McCain of Arizona requested the Department of Justice to launch a criminal probe into the Gold King Mine spill. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Cory Gardner of Colorado introduced a bill that would make sure the EPA would fully compensate communities hurt by the spill.

No matter how much the EPA pays, it won’t substitute for the spike in suicides in the Navajo Nation that coincide with the spill.

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