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EPA’s Gold King Whitewash, Part II (What EPA, DRMS, and ER should have done)

By -- September 24, 2015

“The competent approach would have been to drill a ‘cased’ hole (a borehole lined with steel pipe) from above the portal into an area behind the blockage…. The EPA/DRMS/ER crew could then use simple instruments to determine the water pressure and extent of water backup in the mine, before beginning to dig. This approach was actually suggested by professionals well in advance of the disaster.”

Information on Gold King and nearby mines was readily available as summarized in an informative article, topographic map, and schematic drawings by geologist David Briggs. He explains water flow and other relationships that the Red and Bonita and Sunnyside Mines may have with Gold King; discusses EPA pollution control activities in the area; and raises questions that EPA, DRMS, ER and EPA on-site coordinator Hayes Griswold should have asked before proceeding. Other questions were asked, but were ignored.

Two Issues

Briggs’s article, however, has two shortcomings. It asserts that the debris in the Gold King portal was loose and unconsolidated, and suggests that an ice plug may have been the primary mechanism trapping the water in the mine passages. No ice appears in any photo—and many winters of heavy snowpack combined with highly mineralized sludge percolating through the enormous and very rocky debris pile would have made it easily strong enough to hold back 3 million gallons of water (or more) … until EPA and Environmental Restoration removed some 80 percent of the natural dam.

The competent approach would have been to drill a “cased” hole (a borehole lined with steel pipe) from above the portal into an area behind the blockage, mining professionals told me. The EPA/DRMS/ER crew could then use simple instruments to determine the water pressure and extent of water backup in the mine, before beginning to dig. This approach was actually suggested by professionals well in advance of the disaster.

Removing tons of rock and debris, before knowing how much water was backed up behind it, was stupid, dangerous and grossly negligent.

Drill rigs are readily available in the area, my sources said, and could have completed the job quickly and inexpensively. The crew could have bulldozed a short road to a site above the portal and driven the rig up there to drill into the mine from above – or even used a helicopter to lower a small rig onto a leveled area above the mine portal, with even less environmental impact.

These approaches would have been minimal in cost, experienced miners told me: probably well under $75,000—even if the drillers initially missed the mine shaft a couple times. In short, there was no excuse not to have done this work. But these “experienced” government “professionals” made no attempt to calculate the amount of water in the mine or its “head pressure.”

They guessed but did not test. Despite plentiful warnings, even in their own work order, they simply assumed there was limited water in the mine, and charged blindly ahead. That is inexcusable and grossly negligent. In fact, their actions are criminal offenses under the federal Clean Water Act and other laws that the government routinely uses to fine and jail private citizens and private sector employees.

Moreover, the cost of drilling holes and conducting basic tests pales by comparison to the millions or billions of dollars in pollution and economic damage that the EPA-led crew’s wanton negligence caused. In fact, EPA bullied its way onto the Gold King premises by threatening owner Todd Hennis with $35,000 per day in fines if he did not allow the government incompetents on his property. It had no compelling reason for being there and faced no emergency requiring immediate, precipitous action.

That compounds the negligence and culpability. However, EPA staff ignored these realities and found abundant reasons to excuse the actions of state and federal officials responsible for the disaster.

EPA’s Sanitized internal Review

On August 24, EPA issued an internal review of events and factors leading to the Gold King Mine blowout. The review team’s summary report provides a useful overview of Gold King, Red and Bonita, and other nearby mining history and early pollution abatement efforts. But with regard to the blowout, too much of it is sanitized and tilted to absolve the perpetrators of any blame, liability, civil penalty, or criminal prosecution. Put bluntly, it is a Tom Sawyer whitewash.

Space does not permit a full analysis. Readers can review the summary and draw their own conclusions by comparing it with information presented here and in news reports. This section focuses on several of the more glaring and important issues.

Expertise. The summary says the state and federal personnel involved here 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 we are left wondering what training and experience this team actually had in this kind of work: reopening mines, dealing with major hidden water impoundments, planning for potential flashfloods, and handling complicated mining engineering problems. Their actions here suggest that their supposed expertise is seriously deficient.

Indeed, it appears that not one of these “experts” had any mining engineering experience whatsoever.

Legislators should insist that every person on site that day, and every official who helped plan this abortive project, present their resumés and discuss their relevant training and experience, notarized and under oath. In an era when the main criterion for being hired by the EPA and DRMS seems to be ideological opposition to mining, such information about the true proficiencies of “experienced professionals” is vital.

Observations. The EPA/DRMS determination that there was “no or low mine water pressurization” at Gold King was supposedly based on eight observations. To the extent that any analysis was actually performed, it was obviously insufficient. Indeed, the EPA review team concluded that it “was not able to identify any calculations made on the possible volume of water that could be held behind the portal plug.” The supposed “analysis” included the following leap-of-faith evaluations.

“2. The mine was draining, which indicated that since water was able to escape, buildup of pressure was less likely.”

Not so. It could just as easily have meant the dam was solid, compacted and largely impermeable, for reasons noted above. Indeed, the compacted overburden was clearly able to hold back an enormous volume of water – until these “highly experienced professionals” destroyed its structural integrity.

“7. The Red & Bonita Mine Adit was lower in elevation (a few hundred feet) and found to be unpressurized after it was accessed by drilling from above.”

Interesting. So the crew working at this mine did use a coring rig to test water pressure. However, my sources tell me they nonetheless unleashed a significant flood of toxic waters when they opened the mine. Why that incident was not reported (in violation of state and federal laws) is a mystery.

“8. One DRMS expert noted that a similar investigation technique was implemented at the Captain Jack Mine in Colorado but did not result in a blowout.”

Of what relevance is that? Every mine is unique and must be treated as if a worst-case scenario could unfold. Jumping to this conclusion underscores an absence of experience and common sense.

[Part I yesterday will be joined by Part III on Monday to conclude this series]

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