This story has been updated to clarify the timing of the investigation.
The Obama administration is investigating whether any federal officials engaged in criminal activity in the buildup to and aftermath of a leak of wastewater at an abandoned mine last year, which resulted in 3 million gallons of toxic water spilling into multiple rivers in the region.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general launched the probe in conjunction with the Justice Department almost exactly one year after the EPA’s self-created disaster occurred. The IG’s office said it would pause its program evaluation in favor of the new inquiry, as it could not reveal information in its standard report until the investigation concludes.
The spill at the defunct Gold King Mine in Colorado began after an EPA inspection crew was examining existing leakages. While excavating loose material in the mine, pressurized water burst out of a tunnel and into a creek that fed into the Animas and San Juan rivers. The spill affected populations in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, as well as multiple Indian nations.
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The announcement came after lawmakers such as Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and John McCain, R-Ariz., requested in May that Justice launch a criminal probe.
“I am glad to see that a criminal investigation into the Gold King Mine disaster is finally under way,” said Barrasso, who chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “Tribal communities in the affected region have been devastated and the EPA has not taken responsibility for the mess it made.”
McCain called the criminal investigation “overdue.”
“There’s no question as to the EPA’s culpability for this spill and this criminal investigation is critical to ensuring justice is served for all those impacted by this terrible disaster,” McCain said.
The IG’s office said its Office of Investigations has been working “collaboratively” with program evaluators since 2015, but clarified on Friday the criminal probe is now its top priority.
In the weeks after the disaster, the EPA released its own, internal report that shifted the blame away from the agency. The report acknowledged employees missed some warning signs and failed to take certain measures to prevent the spill, but ultimately found the blowout was “likely inevitable” due to built up pressurization.
A subsequent report from the Interior Department, however, faulted EPA for not drilling into the mine to determine the level of water in the mine.
“Had it been done, the plan to open the mine would have been revised and the blowout would not have occurred,” Interior officials wrote.
Lawmakers previously called on EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to fire employees connected to the Gold King disaster, and still appear committed to ensuring those involved are held accountable.
“I hope this investigation uncovers who is at fault and holds them responsible,” Barrasso said. “We will be watching closely.”
In a September hearing, McCarthy promised to fire employees if investigations found individuals at fault.
“They made a judgment that turned out to be wrong,” the administrator said of the inspectors. “We will follow up and they will be held accountable if there were mistakes made, if they could have avoided this, if they forgot to look at something or made a judgment that wasn't based on profound and good engineering and science.”
An EPA spokesperson declined to comment on the investigation and would not say if any agency employee had been fired or otherwise disciplined in connection to the incident.
“The agency will consider the Department of the Interior’s Technical Evaluation of the Gold King Mine Incident report and the pending reviews from the General Accountability Office and EPA’s Office of Inspector General before making any final personnel decisions,” the spokesperson said.