State and local leaders are concerned that federal investigations into the Gold King Mine spill are incomplete and erroneous.
The comments come after state officials contradicted the Environmental Protection Agency’s account of how the incident unfolded, in which an estimated 3 million gallons of orange mining sludge poured into the Animas River on Aug. 5 after an error by an EPA-contracted team.
“The conflicting information is deeply troubling, and raises numerous concerns that the federal government’s investigations are incomplete at best, and at worst inaccurate, perhaps even deliberately so,” said U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.
The news of contradictory reports was first reported by the Associated Press on Thursday after an open-records request.
An Aug. 24 internal investigation by the EPA found “insufficient” planning led to the spill. The team was beginning reclamation work at Gold King with excavation at the entrance to the mine when debris gave way, releasing the contaminated wastewater.
The EPA – and other investigators – have acknowledged that the team should have tested water pressure by drilling into the mine.
From here, the story becomes as muddied as the Animas itself.
The EPA contends that the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety – a part of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources – was on board with the plan, which would have sent drainage piping through the entrance of the mine.
“For the Adit, a determination of no or low mine water pressurization was made by experienced professionals from EPA and the DRMS,” the EPA report states.
It goes on to add: “The DRMS experts supported the removal investigation at the Adit and were present at the site during the operations.”
But Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said those statements in the EPA’s report are false.
“DRMS did not have any authority to manage, assess, or approve any work at the Gold King Mine,” he wrote in a Sept. 2 letter to the EPA, just over a week after the EPA’s internal report was released.
“While assessing sites in the area, (DRMS experts) were at the Gold King site the morning of Aug. 5 at EPA’s invitation, but their visit had nothing to do with work on the Gold King adit that morning, and they did not determine or advise that excavation of the adit should be continued,” King added. “Operations at Gold King were entirely under EPA management using EPA contractors on an EPA response action.”
Oddly, though, King’s comments were never cited by investigators with the Interior Department, who conducted an “independent” investigation released on Oct. 22, nearly two months after King expressed concerns.
The report by the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation read similar to the EPA’s internal report, stating: “In attempting to reopen the Gold King Mine, the EPA, in consultation with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS) ... 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 ... led directly to the failure.
“DRMS again discussed the plan to reopen the adit with the EPA (on scene coordinator) and were in agreement to proceed,” the Interior’s report added.
Given the blatant contradiction, local leaders wonder whether both investigations should be called into question. Fears already existed that the federal government was incapable of investigating its own practices, despite the EPA and Interior being separate from one another.
Peter Soeth, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, declined to comment on Friday, stating that the person who developed the report is out of the office and unreachable. Soeth also declined to comment on Thursday for similar reasons, according to news reports.
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency was working “at very high levels” to provide detailed comment. In the meantime, the agency pointed out that the EPA inspector general – who received King’s letter – is an “independent entity” within the EPA and others at the agency did not receive the letter until Nov. 10.
“We continue to have a productive working relationship with the state of Colorado and will review the matters outlined in their letter,” the EPA spokeswoman said.
Given the revelations, Tipton is calling for an investigation “wholly independent” of the Interior and EPA.
Colorado U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, sent a letter to the EPA Friday seeking answers to 15 questions related to the investigation. The EPA Office of the Inspector General already expanded its investigation to address previous questions.
“Coloradans deserve a full and thorough investigation that will lead to much-needed transparency and accountability from the EPA, and I am committed to fighting for answers,” Gardner said.
State Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, is perplexed, pointing out that in numerous conversations between herself, state and federal officials, it was apparent that the state did not have a role in the reclamation plan.
“I believe Mike King when he says that the state did not have that authority or participation in what the EPA was doing,” Roberts said. “I firmly believe this was the EPA in charge and the state had no authority to challenge the EPA because it was the EPA’s operation.”
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, a Democrat, said she hopes state and federal officials move past the controversy.
“I am in support of the state and the EPA putting aside any differences and focusing their collective efforts exclusively on cleaning up the mine waste that is contaminating the Animas River,” she said.