Water flows through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals from the Gold King mine wastewater accident in August.

Water flows through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals from the Gold King mine wastewater accident in August. Brennan Linsley/AP

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Interior Department Report Faults EPA In Colorado Mine Spill

Agency warns that the circumstances around the mine spill are “surprisingly prevalent.”

A fed­er­al probe has found that the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency could have done more to pre­vent a spill of waste from an aban­doned mine that pol­luted two Col­or­ado rivers in Au­gust.

The In­teri­or De­part­ment on Thursday re­leased a re­port on the in­cid­ent, in which an EPA team triggered a blo­wout at the Gold King Mine that turned nearby wa­ter a sickly or­ange col­or. The re­port from the DOI’s Bur­eau of Re­clam­a­tion says that the EPA team in charge of the mine cleanup did not un­der­stand the com­plex­ity of the site and take the ne­ces­sary pre­cau­tions.

But the de­part­ment also cau­tions that the con­di­tions that led to the blo­wout at the Gold King Mine are “sur­pris­ingly pre­val­ent” and that there are in­suf­fi­cient fed­er­al guidelines for re­open­ing aban­doned mines, even as the gov­ern­ment works to clean up tens of thou­sands of such sites across the West.

Spe­cific­ally, the re­port says that EPA did not ad­equately eval­u­ate the buildup of flu­id in the mine and the ground­wa­ter con­di­tions around it. At a pre­vi­ous cleanup at a dif­fer­ent site, the re­port said, of­fi­cials drilled in­to the mine from above to de­term­ine the level of wa­ter, but fed­er­al and state of­fi­cials elec­ted not to do so at the Gold King Mine.

“Had it been done, the plan to open the mine would have been re­vised and the blo­wout would not have oc­curred,” the re­port states.

The Au­gust spill sent more than 3 mil­lion gal­lons of wastewa­ter loaded with lead, ar­sen­ic, mer­cury, and oth­er metals in­to the An­i­mas River and the con­nect­ing San Juan River, leav­ing them pol­luted for days and shut­ting down com­merce along the two rivers.

EPA has taken re­spons­ib­il­ity for the spill, but in an Au­gust as­sess­ment said that the spill was “likely in­ev­it­able.” That same re­port said that the work crew thought the wa­ter pres­sure was lower than it was, lead­ing to the ap­proach that caused the blo­wout.

In a state­ment Thursday, EPA spokes­man Nancy Grantham said the agency “will care­fully re­view the re­port.”

“This re­port, in com­bin­a­tion with the find­ings of EPA’s in­tern­al re­view of the in­cid­ent, will help in­form EPA’s on­go­ing ef­forts to work safely and ef­fect­ively at mine sites as we carry out our mis­sion to pro­tect hu­man health and the en­vir­on­ment,” Grantham said.

In the af­ter­math of the spill, Re­pub­lic­an crit­ics pounced on EPA, char­ging that the agency had not been trans­par­ent about the cause of the spill and was not sub­ject­ing it­self to the same scru­tiny it would give to a private com­pany be­hind an en­vir­on­ment­al dis­aster.

Pre­dict­ably, Thursday’s re­port offered the same open­ing for the agency’s crit­ics in Con­gress. House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee chair­man Lamar Smith of Texas said that EPA’s “neg­li­gence is in­ex­cus­able” and that it was “ap­palling that for months the EPA failed to be forth­com­ing about what went wrong.”

Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Chair­man Jim In­hofe said that the re­port “raises sig­ni­fic­ant new ques­tions” about the spill and ques­tioned the au­thor­ity of the Bur­eau of Re­clam­a­tion in writ­ing the re­port. Sev­er­al com­mit­tees, in­clud­ing the House Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee, have prom­ised more ex­tens­ive fol­low-up on the spill.

But a key find­ing from the In­teri­or De­part­ment re­port cau­tions that the cir­cum­stances around the Gold King Mine—which had been in­op­er­able since 1923—“are not isol­ated or unique” and ex­ist at many oth­er mines across the West. Thou­sands of un­reg­u­lated mines from earli­er in the cen­tury were left un­ad­dressed and without reg­u­la­tion, and many are now leak­ing sludge pol­luted with tox­ic metals in­to wa­ter and soil.

The U.S. Geo­lo­gic­al Sur­vey has iden­ti­fied more than 260,000 aban­doned mines, and the en­vir­on­ment­al groupEarth­works has es­tim­ated the num­ber to be as high as a half-mil­lion.

EPA was go­ing in­to the Gold King site be­cause a col­lapse had stopped up a mine portal, mean­ing wa­ter was build­ing up. In fact, the In­teri­or Re­port found that at the Gold King site, “even if no ac­tion had been taken, it may have failed on its own.”

The EPA and state of­fi­cials in the West are work­ing through a back­log of such sites, try­ing to avoid the leaks and a sim­il­ar blo­wout. But the In­teri­or De­part­ment re­port cau­tions that bet­ter guid­ance will be needed as the ne­ces­sary cleanups con­tin­ue.

The in­cid­ent, while pre­vent­able, is “some­what em­blem­at­ic of the cur­rent state of prac­tice in aban­doned-mine re­medi­ation.”

The re­port states that fed­er­al guidelines for mine cleanups are in­con­sist­ent across agen­cies and that there are few writ­ten re­quire­ments for re­open­ing the mines. Those that ex­ist have “little ap­pre­ci­ation for the en­gin­eer­ing com­plex­ity of some aban­doned mine pro­jects that of­ten re­quire, but do not re­ceive, a sig­ni­fic­ant level of ex­pert­ise.”