DENVER – Documents released Thursday stemming from a congressional investigation into the Gold King Mine spill offer further evidence that federal officials were aware of the potential for a blowout and may have deceived the public following the catastrophe.
But an Environmental Protection Agency employee who led efforts at the mine said having knowledge of the blowout offers evidence that EPA officials were taking precautions to avoid the incident.
The U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources issued the 73-page report. It included an email from Hays Griswold, the EPA employee who led restoration efforts at Gold King, when a massive release of about 3 million gallons of orange mining sludge poured into the Animas River and other waters on Aug. 5.
Water initially tested for spikes in heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, cadmium, aluminum and copper.
“I personally knew it could be holding back a lot of water and I believe the others in the group knew as well,” Griswold wrote in an Oct. 28, 2015, email released by the committee. “This is why I was approaching this adit as if it were full.”
Griswold goes on to say that he was aware of “some pressure” behind the blockage.
He took issue with an Oct. 22, 2015, independent 132-page report by the Bureau of Reclamation which said the EPA team should have drilled into the mine from above in order to determine the level of the mine pool.
“It was incorrectly concluded that the water level inside the mine was at a similar elevation, a few feet below the top of the adit roof. This error resulted in development of a plan to open the mine in a manner that appeared to guard against blowout but instead led directly to the failure,” the report by the Bureau of Reclamation stated at the time.
But the email from Griswold – which was sent to fellow EPA employees – highlights a divide between the independent report’s account and that of the EPA.
“The BOR report indicates that we had no knowledge of this – it is incorrect,” wrote Griswold, a geological engineer with 12 years experience in the mining industry and 28 years of EPA experience on mining site response work.
“Contrary to statements made in the BOR report, there was never any discussion or decision made by the group or myself independently to actually open the mine adit in any way shape or form (from top down or directly in),” Griswold states repeatedly in the email.
“I was approaching the adit on the assumption that it was full,” he added. “The BOR report incorrectly reports that we were not aware of the characteristics of the blockage.
“Perhaps the author would have got these details correctly (sic) had he not slept through my interview and presentation,” Griswold emphasized.
On Aug. 6, 2015, Griswold told The Durango Herald that the EPA planned to clear the dirt blocking the tunnel to install a pipe to pump out the contaminated water in the mine. Around the same time, Griswold told the Denver Post “nobody expected (the acid water backed up in the mine) to be that high.”
Both those statements appear to contradict the comments he made to fellow EPA employees.
Griswold went on in the email to state that the “fatal flaw” was that the top of the adit turned out to be at least two times the height above the floor, more than was expected.
“As it turned out, we inadvertently got to probably within a foot or two of the brow,” Griswold said. “That proved to be too close when rock at the exposed face crumbled out providing an outlet for the water within.”
The contradictory account is not the first time issues have been raised with the Bureau of Reclamation’s investigation. The Colorado Department of Natural Resources disagrees with the bureau’s assertion that mining experts from the state backed a plan to reopen the adit.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation responded: “Reclamation and its Technical Service Center stand behind our peer-reviewed report.”
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency was reviewing the report released Thursday.
Meanwhile, Republicans say the recent findings underscore “inaccurate and misleading accounts” by both the EPA and Reclamation, a bureau within the Interior Department.
“The EPA has been caught deliberately deceiving the public in order to cover up the fact that it was aware of the risks at the Gold King Mine and yet did nothing leading to the disaster,” said U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez. “This is an outrage that cannot go unpunished.
“There must be severe consequences for those involved in the deception and those who were aware of the dangers at the Gold King Mine and were willfully negligent,” Tipton continued. “The EPA’s statements on how this disaster happened and who was responsible cannot be trusted.”