Energy & Environment

The EPA Still Hasn’t Been Held Accountable for the Gold King Mine Blowout

Polluted water at the entrance to the Gold King Mind in Colorado, August 2015 (Photo: EPA/Handout via Reuters)
It unleashed a million pounds of metal contaminants and covered up what happened.

Remember when your TV aired stunning images of a bright-orange river snaking through the West? Credit the EPA for that unnatural scene.

At Colorado’s Gold King Mine, our would-be environmental protectors blew out millions of gallons of acid-mine drainage and metal contaminants. By the EPA’s calculations, the blowout expelled over a million pounds of metal contaminants into the Animas River, including almost a half-ton of arsenic and eight and a half tons of lead. Yet two years later, no one at the EPA has been held accountable for this unmitigated environmental disaster.

Government accounts — including those from the Interior Department and the EPA’s inspector general — have consistently maintained that the EPA crew was seeking to excavate above the mine tunnel’s opening (the “adit”) and stay away from the blockage that plugged it when, somehow, the plug just gave way, unleashing the flood of pollutants. However, well-documented reports (here, here, and here) contradict that story.

One direct refutation came in an e-mail from the Interior Department’s lead Gold King Mine official. Within 48 hours of the blowout, the official e-mailed over a half-dozen colleagues that he had talked with his EPA counterpart in charge of the project. Attached to the e-mail was an undated, unsigned document that flatly contradicts the subsequent official reports:

On 8/5/2015, the EPA was attempting to relieve hydrologic pressure behind a naturally collapsed adit/portal of the Gold King Mine. The EPA’s plan was to slowly drain and treat enough mine water in order to access the inner mine working and assess options for controlling its discharge. While removing small portions of the natural plug, the material catastrophically gave-way and released the mine water.

In other words, the EPA crew was not trying to avoid the plug. It deliberately dug right into it, and the agency has been covering up and hiding its incompetence from Congress, the courts, and the public ever since. This account, rather than the official one, is consistent with the available photographic evidence.

The Daily Caller recently asked the EPA’s inspector general about this e-mail and how it squared with the IG’s report. The EPA IG told the Daily Caller that they viewed the DOI’s official report on the spill, rather than this telling e-mail sent right after the spill, “as the official position taken by the DOI.”

Seasoned investigators don’t give much weight to edited reports and rehearsed statements issued months after an event when contemporaneous e-mails among key players contradict “official positions” that may have been crafted to hide the truth. If the EPA were investigating a private corporation accused of causing this monumental environmental disaster, it would surely not accept the company’s report absolving itself of all responsibility if it flew in the face of statements made by key executives in the aftermath of the blow-out.

The EPA did declare the area a Superfund site — while at the same time pushing the idea that the torrent of pollutants was really no big deal. One EPA report makes the astounding assertion that

EPA’s analysis finds that the release of three million gallons of acid mine drainage was equivalent to four days of current acid mine drainage. The total metal mass in the GKM plume was comparable to the mass of metals carried in one day of high spring runoff. Overall nearly [1,100,000 pounds] of metals were released into the Animas River from GKM.

Is that true? Not really.

To get to these feel-good numbers, EPA calculated four days’ drainage based on the rate water flowed from the mine after the peak of the blowout subsided, not the flow rate from before its crew triggered the blowout. Other EPA documents indicate that before the blowout, the Gold King Mine was flowing at a rate of less than 13 gallons per minute. At that rate, it would not take four days but more than seven months to equal the volume of the blowout triggered by the EPA.

Further, the speed matters in itself. During the blowout, acid-mine drainage spewed at tens of thousands of gallons per minute. The torrent scoured the mine tunnel and the enormous waste-rock pile outside, as well as the creek bed. Water trickling from a mine at 13 gallons per minute could not wash away thousands of cubic yards of waste rock and a million pounds of contaminated metals.

The EPA can’t be allowed to get away with this.

And what of the claim that a million pounds of metal contaminants is roughly comparable to the quantity contained in “one day of high spring runoff”? Again the EPA engaged in sleight of hand.

Digging into other EPA documents shows the agency is comparing some of the metal contaminants still floating in the blowout plume more than 50 miles downstream — after the vast majority, somewhere from 75 to over 99 percent depending on the EPA data used, had already sunk to the river bottom — to metal contaminants measured years before during one day’s high spring runoff. (Or is it “one to two days,” as a later report presents the statistic?)

Also, when the EPA talks about one day’s high spring flow, it is not talking about what might flow from that mine in one day. The EPA’s “high spring flow” includes the metal load for a majority of the river’s watershed, not just what would end up in the river from the Gold King Mine. The Animas River Watershed (the river and all of its tributaries and lands that drain into them) includes 32 other mines and other waste-rock piles that contribute metal contaminants to the river. More metal contaminants are contributed from naturally occurring rock formations that the river and its tributaries naturally erode.

It’s worth mentioning that the blowout pollution was far more concentrated, too, having been dumped into a comparatively low-flowing August river in under two hours rather than over the course of a whole day during the spring when the river is flowing high.

The EPA can’t be allowed to get away with this. The bureaucrats responsible for causing this disaster, as well as those who covered up the EPA’s role, should be fired and otherwise penalized in the same way (also, see here) that any private company would be if its reckless behavior caused millions of pounds of contaminants to pollute an entire watershed. 

— Rob Gordon is a senior research fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Free Markets. Hans A. Von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow in the think tank’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.


The Latest