A government watchdog cleared the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of wrong-doing in a Colorado mine disaster using information from an EPA employee who investigators said made false statements, The Daily Caller News Foundation has learned.
The watchdog, the EPA Inspector General (IG), also willfully ignored other significant, contradictory evidence in its June 12, 2017, report – published nearly two years after the Gold King Mine environmental disaster that saw three million gallons of toxic mine waste water — “inadvertently” released by an agency employee — flood a river that supplies drinking water for residents of three states and the Navajo Nation.
The IG referred the unidentified EPA employee to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for prosecution for making false claims to investigators and for violations of the Clean Water Act, but the case was never filed in federal court. House Republicans accused EPA executives of interfering with the IG’s investigation after agency officials met with site managers during the probe.
Department of the Interior and EPA officials conducted reviews prior to release of the IG report, which also absolved the EPA of wrongdoing.
Officials have read TheDCNF’s reporting and a House Committee on Natural Resources (HCNR) investigation that revealed facts contradicting the executive branch probes, according to IG spokesman Jeff Lagda. But many of the issues raised by the House panel and TheDCNF were not addressed in the watchdog’s report. The IG did not read related lawsuits filed against the EPA, Lagda said.
No EPA employees have been punished for the disaster.
The IG Report Relied On Compromised Sources
The IG interviewed government officials to gather information about the disaster in addition to reviewing related documents, according to the June 2017 report, but at least two EPA managers were compromised.
The IG presented facts to DOJ in October 2016 about whether an EPA official violated the Clean Water Act and made false statements.
The official was likely one of two managers running the Gold King Mine project, given that the rest of the crew onsite were contractors rather than agency employees. Hays Griswold was at the mine when the EPA caused the spill, while the other, Steve Way, retired a few months before the Justice Department referral – a technique government officials sometimes use to avoid imposing disciplinary consequences or to avoid punishment.
Meanwhile, Griswold and Way simultaneously met with a regional EPA supervisor, a headquarters-level director, and an agency spokeswoman during the IG’s investigation.
The HCNR “is concerned that the EPA’s interview did not follow best investigative practices and may have interfered with the [IG’s] ongoing investigation,” Republican Reps. Rob Bishop of Utah and Louie Gohmert of Texas wrote to watchdog at the time.
The IG report mentioned neither the meeting nor the referral.
“The [IG’s] findings and conclusions were based on numerous interviews and reviews of documentation,” Lagda told TheDCNF. “EPA staff were responsive to all of the [IG’s] questions.”
He also pointed to the IG’s methodology, which lists other interview subjects and reviewed documents.
The IG Willfully Ignored Details Opposing Their Findings
The IG report also ignored evidence that:
- The breach was intentional.
- Potential conflicts of interest plagued the DOI’s “independent” review of the spill.
- The EPA either knew or should have known its employees and contractors were digging into, rather than above, the mine entrance.
- DOI official Brent Lewis relayed information from an EPA site manager just two days after the spill, saying that the EPA was digging out Gold King’s plug to relieve hydrologic pressure in the mine.
Yet the IG maintained the EPA’s assertion that the breach was accidental. The watchdog instead viewed DOI’s report on the spill “as the official position taken by the DOI,” Lagda told TheDCNF, essentially ignoring Lewis’ email.
The IG discredited the possibility that breaching the mine was intentional, since that would contradict the EPA’s written plans and (potentially compromised) interviews.
“Personnel on-site the day of the release indicated that, on that day … there was no plan to open the adit,” Lagda said, for example.
The IG also determined that DOI maintained its independence, since there was no evidence the EPA pressured investigators.
“No one we interviewed from the DOI or from among the … report’s peer reviewers indicated that they were directed in any way by the EPA,” Lagda told TheDCNF, echoing the IG report.
But TheDCNF reported numerous potential conflicts of interest.
DOI agencies, for example, were heavily involved at Gold King Mine and the surrounding regions. Also, the Army Corps of Engineers was supposed to co-investigate the spill, but was reduced to a peer reviewer role at the last minute.
DOI reviewers were mysteriously ordered against investigating the EPA’s negligence. Additionally, DOI owns a portion of the Gold King Mine, and the EPA had previously threatened to hold the agency liable for pollution leaking from the site, documents show.
The IG addressed none of these facts.
EPA managers also believed they were digging well above the mine, rather than into its face, despite evidence showing otherwise.
Officials erroneously determined that drainage pipes were placed at the top, rather than bottom of the mine, according to the HCNR investigation.
This “misjudgment” led the EPA to dig too low, which “caused the release,” the IG report said. “According to the Colorado [Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety] geological engineer, no mine maps identifying the height and width of the adit were available.”
Yet the Colorado agency had ordered the pipes to be installed on the mine’s floor, records show, as indicated in the committee report, which the IG had read, according to Lagda.
Lagda simply repeated a line from the IG report in response to TheDCNF’s inquiry regarding the discrepancy.
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