A Free-Market Energy Blog

EPA’s Gold King Whitewash: Part I

By -- September 23, 2015

“EPA and ER had simply ‘miscalculated’ how much water had backed up…. We were ‘very careful.’ The highly acidic, toxic flood was ‘worse aesthetically’ than in reality. Contaminants were ‘flowing too fast to be an immediate health threat.’ … The river is ‘restoring itself’ back to ‘pre-spill conditions’. We just need a ‘focused dialogue’ moving forward.

Can anyone imagine EPA or President Obama making such statements in the wake of a private industry accident? Just recall the hysteria over the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, Deepwater Horizon (Macondo) blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, PCB contamination in the Hudson and Fox Rivers, Duke Energy coal ash spill in North Carolina, and other accidents.”

Tom Sawyer would be proud. Rarely has there been a finer whitewash than EPA’s with the Gold King Mine disaster. Let’s hope that the whitewash eventually erodes, so that we can get to the truth about Gold King, learn from the disaster, and make better decisions about how to clean up thousands of abandoned mines—while still harvesting the vital raw materials that make modern life possible.

On August 5, as most people now know, an Environmental Restoration (ER) company crew—supervised by officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS)—used a big excavator to dig away tons of collapsed rock and debris (“overburden”) that since 1995 had created a natural dam and blocked the entrance to the Gold King Mine, above Silverton, Colorado.

The mine had been abandoned since 1923, except for a brief period in the late 1980s, and water had been seeping out of the caved-in portal for years. The water was acidic and contained iron, lead, cadmium, mercury, and other heavy metals.

The crew kept digging—until the greatly weakened rock and earth dam burst, unleashing (at least) a 3-million-gallon toxic flash-flood that rapidly contaminated the Animas and San Juan Rivers, all the way to Lake Powell in Utah. To compound the disaster, EPA then waited an entire day before notifying downstream mayors, health officials, families, kayakers, farmers, ranchers, and fishermen that the turmeric-orange water they were drinking, paddling in, or using for crops and livestock was contaminated by heavy metals.

Three million gallons of water and sludge would fill a pool the size of a football field down seven feet (120 x 53.3 x 2.3-yards). As professional geologist Dave Taylor had warned in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper a week before the blowout: Faults, fractures, other mines, topographic features, rainfall, and snowmelt in the area meant water had probably backed up hundreds of feet upward into mine drifts, raises, stopes, rooms, and other passageways that begin at 11,458 feet above sea level. Other experts, who spoke with me on condition of anonymity, had given the EPA and DRMS similar warnings as much as two years earlier.

Water was likely accumulating at the rate of 500 gallons per minute, Taylor said, building a “head pressure” of 1 PSI for every 2.3 feet of vertical rise. That meant a sudden release would send toxic water and sludge flash-flooding with incredible power down nearby creeks and rivers. Which is exactly what it did. Not surprisingly, the official downplaying and whitewashing began almost immediately.

EPA and ER had simply “miscalculated” how much water had backed up. It was just trying to stick a pipe into the top of the mine to safely pump liquid out for treatment. We were “very careful.” The highly acidic, toxic flood was “worse aesthetically” than in reality. Contaminants were “flowing too fast to be an immediate health threat.” Barely a week after the spill, the river is “restoring itself” back to “pre-spill conditions.” We just need a “focused dialogue” moving forward.

Can anyone imagine EPA or President Obama making such statements in the wake of a private industry accident? Just recall the hysteria over the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, Deepwater Horizon (Macondo) blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, PCB contamination in the Hudson and Fox Rivers, Duke Energy coal ash spill in North Carolina, and other accidents. Those cases drew vicious, long-lasting condemnation:

The affected waters will be polluted for years or even decades. Wildlife will be wiped out. There is no safe threshold for chemicals. They are toxic and carcinogenic at parts per billion. Criminal corporate polluters should be jailed and fined big-time. We will keep our boots on their necks.

Astounding incompetence and negligence

Gold King is an unconscionable disaster that should never have happened. EPA is the government agency that wants to control every puddle of water, every cubic foot of air and carbon dioxide, every car, household, hospital, mall, office building, highway, farm, and factory in America. Its cavalier incompetence and gross negligence in this case are astounding.

Environmental Restoration, the private EPA contractor that caused the toxic flood, had produced a June 2014 work plan for the planned cleanup. Regarding the lack of access to the mine since 1995, when the entrance partially collapsed, the plan warned:

This condition has likely caused impounding of water behind the collapse. In addition, other collapses within the workings may have occurred, creating additional water impounding conditions. 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.

That work plan, Dave Taylor’s letter, and prior experience with the nearby Red & Bonita Mine (discussed later in this article) meant both EPA, DRMS, and ER knew the high risks in advance. And yet they went ahead, with no containment pond to catch runaway water, and no emergency procedures to deal with a blowout and toxic spill. They didn’t even follow their own ill-conceived plan.

(The EPA contingent had actually begun work at Gold King in September 2014 and had removed some 20 feet of “overburden” material that was blocking the entrance. However, it halted the operation when it determined that its analysis of the mine layout was partly in error; it then backfilled the area with crushed rock, compacted the fresh material, and made plans to return in August 2015—which it did. In the process, the team may have blocked two water drainage pipes that had been installed at the floor of the portal.)

During 2015, EPA intended “to remove the blockage [to the mine entrance] and reconstruct the portal at the Gold King Mine, in order to best observe possible changes in discharge caused by the installation of a bulkhead” in the Red & Bonita Mine, the plan says. Despite warnings of a water impoundment, the plan of operations assumed there would be little water in the mine. It reads in part:

      • Use removed material to create manlift access ramp to area above portal….
      • Excavate loose material from the top of the high wall.
      • Hang wire mesh on the high wall as excavation to the sill of the portal proceeds.
      • Excavate to the sill and into the competent rock face at the portal.
      • Gradually lower the debris blockage with the appropriate pumping of the impounded water……

EPA had posted 191 photographs of the area and the crew’s progress—covering the period right up to and for several hours after the flash-flood. These made the agency and contractor negligence very apparent. However, a day after my townhall.com article and link to the photo archive was posted, the entire collection mysteriously disappeared. Most of those pictures and many others relating to the incident and the belated emergency response were finally reposted and can now be seen in this collection and in this one.

None of the photos shows the crew creating a manlift or excavating from the top of the high wall. They make it clear that the crew simply dug and hauled away enormous volumes of overburden, from above the portal downward—until the remaining rock and soil could no longer hold back 3 million gallons of water, and a toxic orange flood roared out of the mine.

(The August 6 long distance photos at 12:51 and 12:53 suggest how much rock and debris had filled in the portal area. The August 4 image at 10:28, with the Caterpillar excavator, shows that extensive overburden had already been removed on the first day. The August 5 photo, at 10:51, clearly shows the portal and extent of excavation; the Cat has already been moved, because the dam has begun giving way. By 10:54 water is flooding out. By 10:56 a real gusher washes away part of the road and at 11:08 a half-submerged Chevy Suburban is adrift in the flash-flood which, as EPA notes in its internal report, lasted nearly an hour. The August 6 close-up at 12:53 shows the portal after the flood had washed the remaining natural dam away.)

Adding insult to the injury and flagrant negligence, a month after the spill, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) told the Navajo Nation  that FMEA would not provide disaster relief – and EPA began removing emergency water tanks it had provided to Navajo ranchers. This was after the first water tanks it provided were still contaminated with oil from a previous operation! But EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy did say she was “absolutely, deeply sorry this happened.”

(Part II tomorrow will examine what should have done by the regulatory parties. Part III will run on Monday September 28th)

27 Comments


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