In the EPA, the Department of the Interior, and the Gold King Mine Disaster – Part 2, we continue to explore the EPA’s massive mine blowout on August 5, 2015. At this point, there are far more questions to be found than answers.  After the EPA breached the mine, millions of gallons of toxic mine waste and heavy metals quickly made their way through the Animas and San Juan Rivers through three western states and Navajo Nation.  However, progress towards fully understanding how the catastrophe occurred and seeking accountability has proceeded at a much slower rate.  As of the second anniversary of the Gold King Mine blowout earlier this month, no one has been held accountable for the disaster.

Gold King Mine – OIG Review

On August 17, 2015 the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) notified the EPA it intended to conduct a review of the Gold King Mine release.  A little over a week later, on August 26, 2015, the EPA published its initial Internal Review where they acknowledge significantly underestimating the pressure behind the dam holding back the mine water. [1]  The Department of the Interior (DOI) was tasked with conducting an “outside” review of the incident.  (More on the DOI’s role in Part 3 of this series of articles.)  The DOI committee scheduled a hearing for December 9, 2015.

On the evening prior to the DOI oversight hearing, the EPA released an Addendum to the EPA Internal Review of Gold King Mine Incident to state a new narrative of events based on “a follow up interview with the two On-Scene Coordinators (OSCs) most closely associated with the event.” [2]  “On-Scene Coordinator” is an official EPA title under the Superfund Program.

EPA Interference with OIG Investigation

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources sent a letter to the Inspector General for the EPA on December 18, 2015 expressing serious concerns about the disclosure that the EPA had “recently interviewed two material witnesses to the EPA’s activities at Gold King Mine.  Specifically, the Committee is concerned that the EPA’s interview did not follow their own best investigative practices and may have interfered with the OIG’s ongoing investigation.” [3]

The House Committee on Natural Resources letter states concerns with: 1) violations of the EPA’s rules about managers questioning its own staff about OIG investigations, 2) the fact that three EPA employees with close ties to the agency’s PR response to the wastewater spill conducted the interviews, rather than independent investigators or technical experts, and 3) there is no indication that the interview was transcribed or recorded, “possibly obstructing efforts to confirm or deny the Addendum’s new narrative.”  [3]

However, the “most alarming aspect of the Addendum” according to the Natural Resources Committee letter to the EPA OIG is “allegedly uncovered new information that conflicts with the initial EPA Internal Review, the DOI report, and the work that was actually performed at the site.”  Stated clearly: “The addendum’s claim is demonstrably false and is one of multiple claims that diverge from the facts and conclusions presented in reports issued previously by EPA and the Interior Department.” [3]


To sum it all up, we have the EPA investigating the disaster the EPA caused by improper excavation at the Gold King Mine and then significantly revising its initial investigation while allegedly violating best investigative practices, failing to provide a transcript of the interviews, and potentially interfering with EPA Inspector General’s investigation.  All that plus the creation of a new narrative of events that conflict with two other investigations by the EPA and DOI.  Even though the EPA eventually took responsibility for the spill, no officials, supervisors, employees or contractors have been held accountable. [4]  In fact, in the weeks after the disaster, the EPA reportedly gave the contractors involved in causing the spill almost $3 million in contract enhancements. [5]

But then again, has there ever been an efficient, impartial and thorough government investigation of itself?  There might be examples…somewhere – but this isn’t one of them.  If self-investigation reliably produced consistent results, the IRS would allow taxpayers to audit themselves.  Time will tell if President Donald Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt can successfully investigate and correct the failures of the previous administration.


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Article by: Tami Schmitt

Photo by: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)


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