Did EPA chief mislead Congress on Gold King mine investigation?

mccarthy ginaYesterday, Sens. James Inhofe (R) and Mike Rounds (R) sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy asking for clarification on conflicting statements she gave regarding the Gold King Mine blowout and its follow-up investigation. The senators write they are concerned there might be collusion between the EPA and other government entities, and that the “purported independent review” might be tainted by inter-agency collaboration.

Speaking under oath at a Sept. 16, 2015, senate hearing, McCarthy had assured the oversight committee that the Gold King investigation would be entirely independent and that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would not be involved in any manner. But additional information brought to the committee’s attention has shed new light on the veracity of those statements.

The Gold King catastrophe occurred August 5, 2015, when the EPA and its contractors were determining how to safely install a drainage pipe to reduce the rising waters inside the long-abandoned mine. After digging in and around the entrance for a proper drainage hole, a spurt quickly became a deluge, and heavily polluted water gushed down the mountainside and into the pristine Animas river (which empties into the Colorado river).

The mine water’s distinctive yellow-orange plume, which initially discharged three million gallons, contained “arsenic, lead, cadmium, aluminum and copper — among other potentially toxic heavy metals.” Worse still, the EPA was aware of a blowout risk with the Gold King Mine, and documents later revealed that settling ponds outside the mine could have trapped improperly discharged water. After the disaster, the EPA built the settling ponds, but the man-made deluge into the Animas river was now just a trickle.

The EPA also didn’t notify locals along the affected waterways until it was too late, leaving communities along the Animas unable to respond appropriately. The Animas and Colorado rivers are popular rivers for fishing, swimming, and other recreation, and the discharge from the mine carried with it heavy elements like mercury and lead, along with toxic levels of arsenic. This is eerily familiar to the lead contamination in Flint, Mich., where a senior EPA official knew about the problem for months before finally telling the public.

Then in September, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified about the Gold King Mine blowout before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works (EPW) committee. In the letter to McCarthy, they reminded her that at this hearing, they “asked several questions about the actions and events leading up to and immediately following the blowout,” but she refused to answer them, stating the DOI (Department of Interior) would provide the answers once it had conducted an “independent review,” which was still ongoing at the time of her sworn statements.

The letter also reminded McCarthy that they also sent her a series of follow-up questions on Oct. 20, 2015, about the EPA’s work at the Gold King Mine site, but they had not received any responses. “Since these questions for the record were submitted, several events have called into question the accuracy and completeness of your September 16, 2015, testimony before the EPW Committee.”

They note that her senate testimony was “at odds with facts showing extensive coordination between EPA and BOR (Bureau of Reclamation) and other DOI officials with the Gold King site” incident. That’s because the EPA announced on August 18, 2015, that the DOI would do an independent review of the Gold King Mine blowout. Days after this announcement, the DOI said the BOR would head up the DOI review.

McCarthy also said at the hearing that the EPA did not review any drafts or provide direction into the scope of DOI’s probe, and explained that the “EPA had reviewed only a draft press release that the DOI would be conducting the review.” Except it now appears that “EPA officials were involved in reviewing and providing input to DOI related to its investigation.” They note a senior EPA official received and disseminated a draft scope for the DOI review on August 18, 2015, and told a BOR official, “It looks good to me, and I will share up my management chain.”

The senators note this is in direct conflict with McCarthy’s “assertions” at the Sept. 16 hearing that the EPA had only reviewed a DOI press release and where she repeatedly told the committee the EPA had “no role in DOI’s independent review.” She also said the EPA had no role in “advising DOI what should or should not be within the scope of its work.” This, they write, gives them concern that her testimony was at “odds with the facts [that showed] extensive coordination between the EPA and BOR and other DOI officials”  regarding the Gold King site.

They also expressed concern that her testimony about the DOI’s review being independent was inaccurate, and that EPA officials were involved in DOI’s review. They also asked McCarthy to provide copies of all communications between “EPA, DOI, and the Army Corps of Engineers concerning the DOI review and the Gold King Mine blowout.”

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