From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott):
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.”
From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):
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…
“The OIG identified no additional actions EPA needs to take to address the concerns raised beyond those already identified by the EPA and the Bureau of Reclamation. Thus, no recommendations were made in the report,” OIG spokesman Jeff Lagda said in an emailed response to queries.