House Natural Resources Chairman: EPA’s Removal of Gold Mine Plug Was ‘Done On Purpose’

By Barbara Hollingsworth | March 4, 2016 | 3:46pm EST
An employee of the La Plata County Sheriff's Office takes a water sample from the Animas River near Durango, CO after the EPA released three million gallons of toxic wastewater from an abandoned gold mine in August, 2015. (AP photo)

( – The chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources stated that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) removal of a natural plug sealing the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado last August was “done on purpose,” challenging Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to retract her previous testimony that the resulting blowout was “an accident.”

Jewell, whose agency conducted an independent review of the environmental disaster that affected three states, testified on Dec. 9, 2015: “We did not see any deliberate attempt to breach a mine. It was an accident.”

But committee chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) pointed out at a congressional oversight hearing on Monday that according to a subpoenaed email from one of Jewell’s own employees, EPA workers had deliberately been removing parts of the Gold King Mine’s natural plug when the blowout occurred.

“There was nothing unintentional about EPA’s actions with regard to breaching the mine. They fully intended to dig out the plug and breach it. It was a major mistake and due to a lack of engineering planning, but it was done on purpose,” Bishop charged.

The Associated Press reported that a June 2014 EPA work order acknowledged the possibility of a blowout at the abandoned mine that “could cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediment from inside the mine.”

The subpoenaed email was sent from Brent Lewis, the Abandoned Mine Lands program lead at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), to senior BLM officials on August 7, 2015 – two days after the disaster that sent three million gallons of bright orange toxic wastewater rushing into Colorado’s Cement Creek and Animas and San Juan Rivers.   

Lewis had prepared a summary of the incident after talking to Steven Way, EPA’s on-scene coordinator at the mine, who told him that EPA employees were removing “small portions of the natural plug” from the long inactive gold mine at the time of the blowout.

“On 8/5/2015, the EPA was attempting to relieve hydrologic pressure behind a naturally collapse[d] adit/portal of the Gold King Mine. The EPA's plan was to slowly drain and treat enough mine water in order to access the inner mine working and assess options for controlling its discharge. While removing small portions of the natural plug, the material catastrophically gave-way and released the mine water,” Lewis’ email stated.


The email was one of thousands of heavily-redacted documents released on February 11 by the Department of Interior - the same day the committee released its own investigative report highly critical of both EPA and DOI for a “morass of errors, half-truths, and outright falsehoods” regarding the spill.

“The Committee’s oversight of the Gold King Mine disaster has revealed that each of the three reports issued by EPA and DOI in 2015 contains numerous errors and omissions and demonstrably false information,” the committee report stated, including the “false claim that the EPA crew was digging high when the plug somehow eroded on its own.

“Nevertheless, the EPA’s Internal Review concludes that the EPA crew ‘followed standard procedures of a well thought out work plan’ and that ‘the Adit blowout was likely inevitable.’ Cast in the most favorable light, the EPA Internal Review sets forth the best possible explanation from EPA’s perspective, but it is not the truth,” the committee report stated.

Among many other omissions, DOI’s independent Technical Evaluation of the blowout does not “explain how or why EPA failed to test for hydrostatic pressure” in the abandoned mine before removing “the top four feet of the plug,” the report added.

“The many problems with the Technical Evaluation...make Secretary Jewell’s statement that she is proud of the report all the more astounding.”

Related: Gohmert to EPA Director: ‘You Want to Be in Charge of All the Waters of United States?’

Related: EPA Downplays Dangers of Mine Spill, But Concerns Linger

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