February 22, 2016
OP-ED: Duplicity at the Gold King Mine
Rep. Rob Bishop
As the effects of dumping 3 million gallons of contaminated mine water into the Animas and San Juan Rivers continue to be studied, the story of the Gold King Mine disaster grows from bad to worse. Some may have heard that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "accidentally" caused the blowout, but newly disclosed information paints a far worse picture.
In the weeks following the Gold King disaster, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy sought to reassure the public that the agency would hold itself accountable for causing the blowout. In an appearance before a congressional hearing in September, she proclaimed that the EPA would take "corrective actions" following an internal agency review and a technical evaluation performed by the Department of the Interior, the agency the EPA handpicked to investigate the failure. Despite such reassurances, the agencies' reports contain errors, omissions and demonstrably false information.
On Feb. 11, the House Committee on Natural Resources issued a report on the spill, deconstructing the administration's inaccurate and conflicting accounts. While the agencies' reports have created more confusion than clarity, a picture of the events that led to the spill is slowly coming into focus.
In 2009, Colorado's Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety (DRMS) was concerned about discharges of contaminated mine water from a tunnel into the inactive Gold King Mine. The agency installed a drain pipe on the tunnel floor that sloped outward for drainage and closed the entrance by backfilling it. The project was intended to divert the drainage into a ditch installed the year before. During the work, a section of the structure leading to the tunnel collapsed. DRMS attempted to install a metal pipe, called a "stinger," driving through the collapsed material to alleviate the accumulation of water. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, the agency stated that water continued to flow from the mine as it had previously.
In September 2014, the EPA sent a crew to investigate the discharge from the Gold King Mine. At the time, the EPA acknowledged that "conditions may exist that could result in a blow-out." After excavating for two hours, the crew concluded the floor of the mine was six feet lower than the ground outside the mine entrance and that the mine held a large volume of water but was only about half-filled and not pressurized, before halting its work. The EPA would not return until summer 2015.
The EPA failed to test the mine's water pressure when its crew returned that summer. Instead, they dug directly toward the tunnel entrance and exposed the plug that was blocking the tunnel and holding back the water. The plug in the mine opening was too high for the mine floor to be recessed six feet, revealing that the EPA's assumptions were wrong. They should have stopped there, having no idea how much water was in the mine. Despite this, the EPA crew dug into the plug, which was like lighting a fuse with no idea what is on the other end.
The Department of the Interior faulted the EPA for causing the blowout. Unfortunately, as we now know, the department erased much of the EPA's history at the Gold King Mine by reinventing events and assumptions that led to the disaster. The Department of the Interior's report, for example, claims the EPA crew was trying to "dig high" as they excavated to the plug and planned to insert a stinger through the blockage to pump out the water behind it. There was, however — as confirmed by the committee's investigation — no stinger and no pump on-site when the blowout occurred.
After all the administration's conflicting reports were issued, the committee obtained a copy of one email from the EPA official in charge of the Gold King mine at the time of the blowout, documenting that he was aware the mine was pressurized. True or false, this document — circulated within the EPA and to its contractors but never provided by the agency to the committee — makes matters worse. Why would someone do this at a mine he knew to be pressurized? If untrue, why would one assert this and why did the EPA hide it?
While the government's actions are harmful, as they certainly were at the Gold King Mine, it's our obligation to uncover what happened, why it happened, and who was responsible. Yet the Obama administration continues to mislead the public about why the EPA urgently dug out the plug that spilled 3 million gallons of contaminated water.
The committee's report peels back one more layer of government deception, yet we are left with more questions. We cannot accept a government violating with impunity the same standards it enforces on everyone else.
• Rob Bishop is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Utah.
Click here to view article in the Washington Times.