The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) inspector general has concluded that the agency committed no wrongdoing when it accidently breached the Gold King Mine, unleashing millions of gallons of tainted water into the Animas River. The inspector general did admit that the agency had no rules for with blowout-prone toxic mines.
The EPA Office of Inspector General wrote in a 35-page review of the disaster that because there were no set rules, that crews weren’t required to conduct a pressure test on trapped acid water inside the Gold King before trying to open it, The Denver Post reported.
“We found no specific standards for the level of care to be taken or how to assess a collapsed mine portal,” investigators for the EPA Office of Inspector General wrote in the review that makes no recommendations for improvement.
Before the EPA crew accidentally triggered a 3 million gallon spill on Aug. 5, 2015, the Gold King already was leaking 200 gallons per minute of acid metals-laced discharge – equal to the disaster every 10 days, the investigators noted.
The 2015 spill ignited outrage at the EPA and a failure to handle a long-festering environmental problem. State agencies also have failed to deal with the problem of toxic mines contaminating rivers and streams.
Congressional Republicans had demanded an investigation of the cause of the disaster and the EPA’s response.
Office of Inspector General investigators, working independently within the EPA, found that EPA officials and their contractor were qualified and “had identified concerns about the water level and the potential for blowout of the blockage.”
The EPA-led team was at the mine not to open it but to evaluate conditions, investigators wrote. “Based on interpretation of mine-site conditions, the lead OSC (on-scene coordinator) did not believe direct testing of water behind the blockage was necessary.”
Colorado Department of Natural Resources officials had been working with EPA officials at the site, above Silverton in southwestern Colorado. And the group’s work plan included a warning that “conditions may exist that could result in a blowout of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediment from inside the mine, which contain concentrated heavy metals.”
As the EPA crew and state partners worked at the Gold King, “there was an assumption that because the mine was draining, it was not under pressure. The EPA’s approach…. was to proceed with caution.”
Investigators said they “found it reasonable that the EPA had not conducted direct testing of the water level or pressure during the removal site evaluation at Gold King by the time of the release on Aug. 5, 2015. This was reasonable because of the interpretation of site conditions by the team, and because of safety risks, engineering challenges, unknown benefits and high costs associated with drilling at the site.”
The OIG conducts audits aimed at improving the EPA.
There have been other reviews. EPA leaders and the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Reclamation also conducted reviews after the disaster. They recommended improvements to reduce risk of future blowouts at other toxic mines.
Federal prosecutors also looked into what happened. The U.S. Attorney in Denver declined to press charges after looking at evidence that an EPA employee might have made false statements and violated the Clean Water Act.