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EPA’s Gold King Whitewash, Part III

By -- September 28, 2015

“Had the EPA/DRMS/ER people been private sector employees and supervisors, the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Justice Department would have prosecuted them as criminals and sought lengthy prison terms – just as they did with numerous U.S. citizens, including John Pozsgai, Bill Ellen, 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, after having caused far worse environmental damage?”

This three-part series on the Gold King environmental disaster indicts both the practices of and the denial by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Part II examined what EPA’s contractors should have done given simple, well-known best practices:

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.

Compare this to what EPA itself states on page 7 of the summary report (this abridged version retains the essential points in the official document):

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 performed at the nearby Red and Bonita Mine and found no pressurization. Consequently, it was determined that the tunnel was not full of water and excavation of the Adit at that mine could proceed. Such a technique was not used at the [Gold King] Adit [because it] would have been very difficult and expensivequite costly 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]

So, the EPA/DRMS “experts” could have learned about the massive water impoundment by drilling a hole, but decided not to because there was no buildup in a nearby mine – and because taking this basic and responsible step would have taken too much time, cost too much money, and been too technically challenging. As noted above, none of this is true. It is a clumsy, fabricated justification for incompetence and gross negligence. And it would definitely have discovered the “pressurized conditions.”

Moreover, since when did EPA ever worry about spending taxpayer, corporate, or consumer money, on regulations or more bureaucrats, even for minimal or fanciful health or environmental benefits? This sudden concern about a vitally important $75,000 expenditure is absurdly self-serving.

Had these EPA/DRMS/ER people been private sector employees and supervisors, U.S. EPA and the U.S. Justice Department would have prosecuted them as criminals and sought lengthy prison terms – just as they did with numerous U.S. citizens, including John Pozsgai, Bill Ellen, 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, after having caused far worse environmental damage?

The continuing aftermath

Before the blowout, the Gold King Mine was leaking some acidic and metals-laden, but mostly clear, water: 206 gallons per minute in 2010, 140 gpm in 2011; 13 gpm in August 2014; and 112 gpm in September 2014, just before EPA first began working at the mine portal. (Those figures translate to between 19,000 to 297,000 gallons per day.) On August 5, 2015, it flash-flooded more than 3,000,000 gallons of turmeric-orange, toxic-sludge-laden pollution.

The mine is now leaking 500-900 gallons per minute: 720,000 to 1,300,000 gallons per day – a massive increase in pollution into these important waterways. Most of it is now supposedly being treated before going into Cement Creek, the Animas River, and further downstream.

But once again we must ask, what was the emergency that “forced” the EPA and DRMS to demand immediate access to the site – and then proceed in such a hasty, grossly negligent manner that their “experts” unleashed a toxic flood unlike almost anything our western states had seen before?

In the near future, it is hoped, effluents from other abandoned mines will be treated under legal regimes and via sensible and efficient treatment systems, such as will be discussed in a future article. That will greatly improve water quality in many streams and rivers—22and the conclusions presented in EPA’s internal review and summary report should do much to prevent a repeat of Gold King, if they are followed.

Of course, those waterways will still be impacted by the iron, lead, zinc, chromium, cadmium, mercury and multiple other metals and minerals that are present in underground mines found throughout these Rocky Mountain States … along with the gold, silver and base metals that have drawn prospectors for centuries. But at least we will be reducing the human contribution to the contamination.

Unfortunately, this incident and the whitewashing that followed is all too often par for the course for an Environmental Protection Agency that has become increasingly arrogant, dictatorial, unaccountable, and dismissive of other interests, human needs and outside expertise. Created by executive order in 1970, by consolidating responsibilities from a number of disparate federal agencies, EPA did an excellent job of cleaning up our air and water.

However, having achieved its original purposes, it has become a power unto itself – seeking always to expand its mission, personnel, budget, and power, especially under President Obama. Above all, it has become an instrument for those who want to block fossil fuel use, “fundamentally transform” our nation’s legal and economic systems, and eliminate mining and other extractive and productive industries. Its deceitful practices and abuse of vaguely worded laws and a bloated budget enable it to impose its will much too easily, often by using billions of taxpayer dollars to enforce its dictates and fund an illegal propaganda machine to advance, justify and extol its agendas.

Congress and state legislatures need to fully investigate the Gold King disaster, with responsible parties compelled to testify under oath. They also need to clarify laws, trim agency budgets, and ensure that agency personnel are truly qualified people doing their tasks, and are not merely ideologues on a mission.

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(Part I and Part II last week started this series, which ends with Part III today.)

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