Government’s Gold King whitewash

Double standards and pollution continue, while the feds exonerate themselves from blame

jewellWhen a private citizen or company violates rules, misrepresents facts or pollutes a river, government penalties are swift and severe. It’s different when the government lies or screws up.

Two weeks ago, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell testified before Congress on a toxic spill that federal and state agencies unleashed into western state rivers last August. Supervised by officials from the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS), an Environmental Restoration (ER) company crew excavated tons of rock and debris that had blocked the portal (entrance or adit) to the Gold King Mine above Silverton, Colorado.

Theuturn crew kept digging until the remaining blockage burst open, spilling 3,000,000 gallons of acidic water laden with iron, lead, cadmium, mercury, and other heavy metals. The toxic flood contaminated the Animas and San Juan Rivers, all the way to Lake Powell in Utah. The EPA then waited an entire day before notifying downstream mayors, health officials, families, kayakers, fishermen, farmers and ranchers that the water they were drinking, paddling in, or using for crops and livestock was contaminated.

Ms. Jewell told Congress she was unaware of anyone being fired, fined, or even demoted. In fact, federal investigations and reports didn’t hold anyone responsible for the disaster. (Maybe they even got bonuses.) Considering the spill’s severity, the gross incompetence of government officials, their advance knowledge of the dangers, and the way they downplayed and whitewashed their actions, this is intolerable.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy did say she was “absolutely, deeply sorry.” But then FEMA gmepadenied disaster relief to the Navajos, and the EPA sent them emergency water tanks contaminated with oil!

As I explained in a detailed analysis, experts had warned that contaminated water had probably backed up hundreds of feet upward into the mine, creating the risk of a sudden, powerful toxic flashflood. EPA’s, DRMS’s, and ER’s prior experience with nearby mines meant they personally knew the high risks in advance. In a June 2014 work plan for the planned cleanup, ER itself had warned: 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.”

Yet they went ahead, with no emergency plans for dealing with a toxic spill. They didn’t even follow their own ill-conceived plan. As the contamination moved downstream, they claimed they had simply “miscalculated” how much water had backed up and insisted they had been “very careful.” Barely a week after the spill, Ms. McCarthy said the river is “restoring itself” to “pre-spill conditions” – something she would never say if a privately owned company had caused similar contamination.

On August 24, EPA issued a preliminary report that can only be called a Tom Sawyer whitewash, epadudedesigned to absolve the perpetrators of any blame, liability, civil penalty, or criminal prosecution.

It says the state and federal personnel at Gold King were “senior mining experts” and “experienced professionals” who have “extensive experience with the investigation and closure of mines.” But their names were all redacted from the summary, and their actions strongly suggest that they had little training or experience in reopening mines or dealing with possible water impoundments and toxic spills.

The EPA/DRMS determination that there was “no or low mine water pressurization” at Gold King was supposedly based on actual observations. However, the EPA review team said it “was not able to identify any calculations made on the possible volume of water that could be held behind the portal plug.”

In fact, the “professionals” simply claimed ongoing mine drainage showed that a pressure buildup was not likely. Wrong. It simply showed that the compacted overburden was able to hold back an enormous volume of water – until they destroyed its structural integrity. They also said a similar excavation at a nearby mine “did not result in a blowout.” But that’s irrelevant. Every mine is unique and must be treated as if a worst-case scenario could unfold. The other mine didn’t have serious water backup; Gold King did.

Perhaps the most blatant example of self-serving excuses is on page 7, which says in relevant part:

“Mine water pressurization data from behind the blockage potentially could have been obtained through a drill hole inserted further back into the [Gold King] Adit from above the mine tunnel. Such a technique was … not used at the [Gold King] Adit [because it] would have been very difficult and expensive … and require much more planning and multiple field seasons to accomplish. Although difficult and therefore expensive and technically challenging, this procedure may have been able to discover the pressurized conditions that turned out to cause the blowout.” [emphasis added]

In truth, the crew could easily have drilled a borehole lined with steel pipe from above the portal into an area behind the blockage, and then used simple instruments to determine the water pressure and extent of water backup, before beginning to dig. They had done this elsewhere and at could have done it at Gold King for less than $75,000, experienced miners told me. It was not “technically challenging.”

These “experienced professionals” guessed but did not test. They simply assumed there was limited water in the mine, and charged blindly ahead. And they did it after bullying their way onto the Gold King premises by threatening its owner with $35,000 per day in fines if he did not allow them on his property.

billellTheir actions were grossly negligent. In fact, they are criminal offenses under the Clean Water Act and other laws that the government routinely uses to fine and jail private citizens and company employees, such as John Pozsgai, Bill Ellen (photo), and employees of Freedom Industries and the Pacific & Arctic Railway. None of these “convicted felons”intended to cause those accidents, and all were “absolutely, deeply sorry” for what happened. Why should the state and federal culprits be treated any differently – get off scot free – after causing far worse environmental damage?

Before the blowout, the Gold King Mine was leaking 206 gallons per minute (gpm) of acidic, metals-laden but mostly clear water in 2010, 140 gpm in 2011, 13 gpm in August 2014, and 112 gpm in September 2014, just before the EPA first began working at the mine portal. On August 5, 2015, it flash-flooded more than 3 million gallons of turmeric-orange, toxic-sludge-laden pollution.

The mine is now leaking 500-900 gpm: 720,000 to 1,300,000 gallons per day – a huge increase in pollution into these important waterways. Until winter set in, most of it was finally being treated before entering Cement Creek, the Animas River, and downstream waters.

So we must ask, what was the emergency that “forced” the EPA and DRMS to return to Gold King, demand immediate access to the site – and proceed in such a hasty, negligent manner? Unfortunately, this incident and the whitewashing that followed is too typical of government agencies that have become increasingly dictatorial, unaccountable, and dismissive of other interests, outside expertise, and people’s needs for jobs, minerals, energy and quality living standards.

Today, throughout the Rocky Mountain region, waters are still polluted by metals and minerals that are present in underground mines … along with the gold and silver that have long drawn prospectors, created jobs, and built state and local economies. Hopefully, effluents from all these abandoned mines will soon be minimized via practical, efficient, low-maintenance treatment systems, under legal regimes that do not assign unlimited liability to private sector entities that try to fix these problems.

That will greatly improve water quality in many streams – while suggestions presented in the EPA’s otherwise shoddy internal review could do much to prevent a repeat of Gold King, if they are followed.

Meanwhile, Congress and state legislatures should further investigate the Gold King disaster, and compel witnesses to testify under oath. They should also improve relevant laws, ensure that agency personnel are truly qualified to do their tasks, and hold agency incompetents and miscreants accountable.

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About the Author: Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for CFACT and author of Cracking Big Green and Eco-Imperialism: Green Power - Black Death.

  • emmaliza

    This is a reminder of such ecological disasters that occurred in the Soviet Union. Washington in most ways now resembles the Kremlin. The old Bolsheviks had no concern for human beings, and murdered/starved over 66 million people. Power without principle is deadly, be it destroying affordable energy or polluting water. Have the Bolsheviks now taken over?

  • Dano2

    Too bad the vaunted Free Market didn’t deploy some fairies to prevent the leakage in the first place, eh?

    I wonder if the vaunted Free Market is cleaning up any of the other hundreds of leaking mines in Colorado? No?

    Best,

    D

    • DocForesight

      Perhaps you missed it but this article dealt with this specific disaster and the lack of accountability by several government agencies. The author does not brush away the need for holding private entities responsible for accidents and contamination — where do you get the impression that he does?

      That this EPA under this administration and the heads of agencies tasked with managing their jurisdictions routinely badger, harrass, penalize and fine private individuals is a well established fact. You should be as concerned about that as if they were snooping on you.
      Best,
      D

      • Dano2

        The overarching issue is them thar ee-pee-eh and the defunding thereof. The underfunded EPA did what it could by making a berm, then testing after melt season. A disaster ensued when there was more pressure behind the berm than they counted on (counter to several analyses).

        Point being: underfunded and chronically nervous agency is in charge of thousands of gallons of mine discharge a day into the headwaters of the West’s major rivers, and them thar Free Market is not solving the problem, and this shill offered no alternatives.

        Best,

        D

        • DocForesight

          The EPA has suffered no defunding over the last 10 years and did not with the latest $1.1T budget bill passed last week. Your argument fails with that fact alone. If the EPA truly needed additional funding to properly conduct testing, oversight and mitigation projects they can take their needs to Congress, which controls the purse, and plead their case where it belongs – before the representatives.
          What evidence do you have that the EPA did as you assert; that they didn’t properly conduct a pressure test or were surprised by the results; that they are “nervous”? Were you at the Congressional hearings and have reports the EPA representative didn’t have access to?
          The Free Market didn’t create the problem. The mine water was held in place and wasn’t disturbing anyone. The EPA ignored or rejected the warnings of bona fide experts and chose to embark on this project that was predictable in its result.
          How exactly, and by what evidence, do you claim the author is a “shill” and for whom?

          • Dano2

            They are constantly under threat of defunding, budget cuts, etc so it is hard to get top people when you are constantly under threat.

            Best,

            D

            • DocForesight

              Poor bureaucratic babies. They apply for or are appointed to these jobs knowing the history of the Agency. Being under threat of defunding is not the same as being defunded. Do you see any of them complaining about their compensation? No.

              You didn’t answer my demand for evidence that the author is a “shill” nor for what entity or organization. Why, do you have none?

              • Dano2

                Um, he is employed by CFACT and has taken money from Heartland. Come now.

                Best,

                D

  • 08.08.15 THE EPA ACCIDENTALLY TURNED THIS RIVER TOXICAND ORANGE

    SINCE WEDNESDAY MORNING, a ribbon of bright orange water has been making its way down the Animas River southwest of Denver, Colorado. The cause? A million gallons of gunk pouring out of an abandoned century-old mine.

    http://www.rt.com/usa/311858-colorado-mine-spill-orange/