Investigators: EPA had no rules for working at risky mines

In this Aug. 6, 2015. AP file photo, Dan Bender, with the La Plata County Sheriff's Office, takes a water sample from the Animas River near Durango, Colo. after the accidental release of an estimated 3 million gallons of waste from the Gold King Mine by a crew led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA said Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, that it won’t pay claims totaling more than $1.2 billion for economic damages from the spill, saying the law prohibits it. | Photo by Jerry McBride /The Durango Herald via AP, St. George News

DENVER (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had no rules for working around old mines when the agency inadvertently triggered a massive spill from a Colorado mine that polluted rivers in three states, government investigators said Monday.

The agency started work on safety standards after the spill and expects to finish them Friday, investigators from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General said.

FILE – In this Aug. 12, 2015, file photo, Environmental Protection Agency contractors repair damage at the site of the Gold King mine spill of toxic wastewater outside Silverton, Colo. The Environmental Protection Agency had no rules for working around old mines when the agency inadvertently triggered the massive spill from the Colorado mine that polluted rivers in three states, government investigators said Monday, June 12, 2017. AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File, St. George News

An EPA-led contractor crew was excavating at the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado in 2015 when a debris pile blocking the entrance collapsed. That released 3 million gallons of wastewater tainted with iron, aluminum, lead, copper, arsenic and other heavy metals into rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. Native American tribes in those states were also affected.

State, tribal and federal officials have criticized the EPA for not taking more precautions, such as drilling into the mine to determine how much water was pent up inside.

Like previous investigations, the inspector general’s report said the EPA knew the Gold King — one of scores of inactive mines in the mountains around Silverton, Colorado — posed a risk of a blowout. Even before the Aug. 5, 2015, spill, the mine was spewing out 200 gallons of wastewater per minute, or about 3 million gallons every 10 days, the report said.

Despite the risk, the EPA had “no specific standards for the level of care to be taken or how to assess a collapsed mine portal,” the report said. It said the EPA gives its employees in charge of such operations, known as on-scene coordinators, wide latitude in deciding how to work on old mines, and that both coordinators assigned to the Gold King were experienced and highly trained.

The inspector general’s report disputed one key element in a previous review of the Gold King spill, by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which was assigned to conduct an independent, outside assessment of what went wrong.

The Bureau of Reclamation said the EPA-led crew was attempting to insert a drain pipe through a debris pile blocking the entrance of the mine, and that the on-scene coordinator had pushed that work ahead despite the reservations of the other on-scene coordinator, who was not present that day.

But the EPA inspector general said the crew was excavating loose rock around the mine entrance to see if the underlying rock was solid, not trying to insert a drain pipe. The inspector general said the crew did only work that had been planned for that day and was not rushing the schedule.

Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Peter Soeth said he could not comment on the discrepancy, but he said the bureau stands by its version of events. EPA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The inspector general said the Bureau of Reclamation engineer who lead the review “created the appearance of a lack of independence” because he had worked with EPA on plans for other mines near the Gold King. The engineer, who was not identified by name, was also scheduled to consult with EPA on the Gold King just 10 days after the blowout, and had gone to the scene to help stabilize the mine afterward.

But the inspector general concluded the Bureau of Reclamation’s report was still independent. “Bureau of Reclamation reviewers indicated they were able to do their work without any interference,” the inspector general report said.

Soeth said the bureau disclosed the engineer’s activities in its review, released in October 2015, and that bureau officials had no doubt about his independence.

The EPA inspector general also reviewed how the agency went about notifying state, local and tribal authorities after the spill. Some officials complained they learned about the spill hours afterward, and others said they never heard directly from the EPA.

The inspector general concluded the EPA had complied with all of its own rules for notifying downstream river users, but noted that the agency had taken steps to improve communications.

The report was at least the sixth review of the Gold King spill, including three by the EPA, one by the Bureau of Reclamation and one by federal prosecutors, based on information from the EPA inspector general.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Denver declined to charge anyone in connection with the spill, even though the EPA said last year it gave prosecutors evidence that an EPA employee may have violated the Clean Water Act and given false statements. The employee’s name wasn’t released.

Written by DAN ELLIOT, Associated Press

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • Brian June 13, 2017 at 8:03 am

    No rules? They had no common sense and apparently no ears! A local engineer had told them for weeks in advance this was going to happen and they refused to listen.

    I think they (specifically the on-site contractors) wanted it to happen. Look at the result: they got $30 million to clean up their mess. Where can I get some punishment like that?

  • Caveat_Emptor June 13, 2017 at 8:19 am

    Common sense and some basic scientific assessment would be appropriate, in the absence of detailed Operating Procedures.
    The “As-Is” conditions need to be documented, first, then several options to proceed would be identified, with the associated risks (eg. blow out). For each identified risk (eg. blow out), they would figure out a risk mitigation action (eg. secondary containment)……..

    Accidents happen, but it strikes me that this was a case of negligence on the part of the EPA. Incompetence, or arrogance, led to this outcome. The challenge will be to deal with the numerous abandoned mines in the area that have the same risk profile…….

  • Proud Rebel June 13, 2017 at 9:23 am

    This is just typical bureaucracy, denying responsibility for screwing up. Since we have a “firing” president, he should fire as many people as he can, that supposedly “lead” the EPA. The old “blame game” that is constantly in play, needs to be done away with here, and recompensation for losses need to be paid. Out of the EPA’s budget.
    Either the EPA is doing the job of protecting the environment, or they are not. And if not, then the agency needs to be abolished. How does anyone figure that this agency is about protecting the environment, if they weasel out of taking responsibility for their actions when things go wrong.
    It’s time for a house cleaning at this, (and a lot of other,) government agencies.

    • Chris June 13, 2017 at 3:13 pm

      “denying responsibility for screwing up”?? Did you even read the article? A government investigation assigned blame and indicated, in detail, what went wrong, but somehow in your mind, they are denying responsibility. There is no question that things went horribly wrong that day, but no one is “weaseling out” here. Is this the confused way you conduct your life in general?

      • Proud Rebel June 14, 2017 at 7:54 pm

        Yes Chris, I DID read the article. I ALSO read where the EPA is denying payment for any damages. Perhaps you should read the related story that is shown above where the EPA is going to try their best to weasel out of paying.
        The people who are confused, are folks who are willing to swallow everything the government throws at them, be it mana, or excrement.
        The EPA is the outfit that was in overall control here, and no matter how they point the finger, it is STILL their responsibility.

  • comments June 13, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    I love how updates on this story always bring out the same right wing loons blathering the same old lines. Why are we even surprised when there is such little accountability in govt? Our leaders can start wars that destroy entire countries based on their own fabricated lies and no one is held to account. You get into a powerful enough place in our govt and you are above all laws. Where to even begin fixing such problems?

  • Proud Rebel June 13, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    Just out of curiosity, am I one of the people you’re referring to as a right wing loon?

    • comments June 13, 2017 at 6:48 pm

      not necessarily

      • Proud Rebel June 14, 2017 at 7:55 pm

        Thank you. I’m not denying being a loon….just a right wing loon. 😀

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