February 17, 2016
If a private company dumped three million gallons of toxic sludge into Colorado waterways, we’d be flooded with daily media updates for months. Yet the press has by now forgotten the disaster unleashed in August when EPA contractors punctured an abandoned mine. New evidence suggests the government isn’t coming clean about what happened.
The House Natural Resources Committee last week released a report detailing EPA’s cascade of failures that resulted in the Aug. 5 blowout of the Gold King Mine, which unloaded 880,000 pounds of metals into the nearby Animas River and other waters.
EPA planned its disastrous investigation of the mine for years, not that you’d know: The agency assumed a layout of the area that contradicted public records, including the remarkable conclusion that a drain ran near the ceiling of the mine’s entrance. This led EPA to believe that water backed up only about half the tunnel. The agency didn’t test the water pressure, a precaution that would have prevented the gusher. EPA hasn’t explained this decision, and emails obtained by the committee show the on-site coordinator knew there was “some pressure.”
The crew made more bad decisions than characters in a horror movie. About a week before the blowout, the on-site coordinator went on vacation and left instructions that his replacement seems to have ditched. For example: Don’t dig toward the tunnel floor unless you have a pump handy. The crew pressed downward without a pump and intentionally unearthed the mine’s plug. “What exactly they expected to happen remains unclear,” the report concludes. The Interior Department now euphemistically calls this series of events an “excavation induced failure.”
EPA is so far suggesting that no one committed crimes, and maybe so. But consider: EPA cranked out a report three weeks after the disaster and said the Interior Department would conduct an independent review that the Army Corps of Engineers would sign off on. EPA testified to the committee that Interior would look for wrongdoing, though Interior said the department was only offering technical support.
The reports from EPA and Interior include wild inconsistencies “some of which are not attributable to error and incompetence alone,” the House concludes. Interior says the crew hoped to drain water on that fateful day, but we know the team didn’t have the proper equipment. EPA provided only a doodled map as an explanation for the agency’s assumptions, one that someone drew after the blowout. There are also questions about Interior’s independence, as several of the department’s offices helped handle the aftermath—for example, dumping a billion gallons of water to dilute the toxic plume.
The Army Corps official tasked with checking Interior’s work expressed concerns with the findings, and he seems to have seriously considered refusing to sign the report, according to emails. We can only guess what he disputed, as Interior insisted on heavily redacting the correspondence. The committee still hasn’t received all the information it requested.
The committee’s report is a public service, even if it raises more questions than it answers. EPA wouldn’t tolerate ducking and deliberate obfuscation from the private businesses the government so routinely punishes, and the House should continue to hold the agency to the same standards.
to read the article online.