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Report: EPA Error Responsible for Animas River Environmental Disaster

Report: EPA Error Responsible for Animas River Environmental Disaster

Refutes EPA assertion that the spill was “inevitable”.

A report detailing the cause of the Animas River environmental disaster, which resulted in the release of millions of gallons of heavy-metal containing wastewater into a scenic Colorado river, blames the EPA for the incident….contrary to an internal review conducted by the agency itself.

The Environmental Protection Agency botched the clean-up effort at the Gold King Mine by rushing to complete the job instead of taking precautions that would have prevented the disastrous toxic spill into the Animas River.

A 132-page report released Thursday by the Interior Department and Bureau of Reclamation found that the Aug. 5 accident was not “inevitable,” as the EPA’s own internal review had concluded, but could have been avoided if the agency had followed engineering practices used at other inactive mines.

…According to the report, the agency committed a pivotal error by failing to gauge the level of wastewater behind the collapsed rock and soil at the mine, which could have been done by using a drill rig to “bore into the mine from above and directly determine the level of the mine pool prior to excavating backfill at the portal.”

Key complaints about the EPA related to this event center on its failure to adequately address a potential blowout and the agency’s rush to begin work without gathering adequate information on the challenges of the project.

The Interior report directly refutes that assertion and says the cleanup team could have used a drill rig to bore into the mine from above to gauge the danger of a blowout.

“This error resulted in development of a plan to open the mine in a manner that appeared to guard against blowout, but instead led directly to the failure,” according to engineers from Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation who spent two months evaluating the technical circumstances surrounding the accident.

…A US Army Corps of Engineers official who reviewed the report expressed “serious reservations” over the EPA’s failure to explain exactly how its communications broke down, or to justify why its officials were so insistent on starting the work without more information about the engineering complexities involved.

According to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the EPA would “hold itself to the highest standards” during its investigation. However, it is apparent that the agency is desperately trying to minimize all responsibility for its role in the August disaster.

The irony of the EPA giving itself a pass while holding average citizens to a platinum standard is not lost on some. One man confronted McCarthy during her recent “Apology Tour.”

Ed Blinzler said he’s been fined by the EPA in the past as a private contractor building houses. Blinzler claims he was fined $7,000 by the EPA in recent years after dirt was running into the street during a home building project.

In the middle of his story, EPA Administrator McCarthy said, “I get your point! You’re asking us if we’re going to hold ourselves to the same standard.”

Blinzler replied, “How much of a fine are you going to pay? How much of a fine are you going to pay us?”

And while average citizens aren’t going to get compensated for the accident, the EPA is spending their tax dollars to fix its mistake. The agency has just opened up a temporary treatment plant to cleanup the remaining wastewater from the Gold King Mine:

A temporary treatment plant has begun cleaning up polluted water flowing from the Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado after an accident sent millions of gallons of waste into rivers in three states.

The Environmental Protection Agency said Monday the $1.8 million plant is processing up to 800 gallons per minute, including water flowing from the mine and water stored in ponds.

The EPA says the plant costs about $20,000 a week to operate. The agency says it has now spent nearly $14.5 million cleaning up after the Aug. 5 spill.

Construction of such a treatment plant was predicted by geologist Dave Taylor, in an op-ed that described what was likely to happen if the EPA implemented its clean-up plans—which was published about a week before the spill.

While the temporary treatment plant may cleanse the water remaining in the abandoned mine, the contamination to the agency’s reputation will remain into the foreseeable future.

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Comments

In an agency full of dipsticks, they didn’t use a dipstick?

When can we expect someone or more to lose their jobs over this? It’s time that our government take responsibility. Bonus’ to government employees should also be stopped, permanently.

    Anonamom in reply to texasron. | October 23, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Umm, never? It’s a weakness inherent in bureaucracies. There’s never accountability and they ALWAYS grow. And we are swimming in bureaucracies. I have no idea what the answer is, sadly.

This is actually the fault of Congress, which has declined adequate oversight and direction to the EPA.

EPA’s initial air and water quality goals have been met for some time, and EPA has, as a bureaucracy will, been scrambling to find something else to do. The something else has turned out to be pushing for ever-tighter standards, declaring non-pollutants (CO2 and water) to be pollutants, questionable enforcement of other countries’ laws, stockpiling military weaponry, seeking control of all water, including rain puddles, and pushing to clean up old, contained messes, such as the mine in question.

The EPA needs direction. I propose that the EPA be directed to publish a checklist of standards for a showing that a manufacturing facility will comply with their rules, and a 90-day limit on a permitting process relying on such a checklist.

A business should be able to prepare a request for permit that is acceptable, and the agency should be able to accept it. This requires clear rules, and forethought on the part of the agency.

    Ragspierre in reply to Valerie. | October 23, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    “The EPA needs direction.”

    Yes. Straight into the recycling plant, never more to emerge!

    TX-rifraph in reply to Valerie. | October 23, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    “This is actually the fault of Congress, which has declined adequate oversight and direction to the EPA.”

    My Representative, Lamar Smith, chairs that committee in the House. He holds hearings, asks questions, issues press releases, and then provides the EPA with the laws and the money to do the harm that he complains about. He holds the keys but does not drive. He is an example of the establishment GOP in “action.”

    The EPA will make vague statements about accountability and Lamar Smith will make some little committee noises. Nothing will happen except the taxpayer pay and those on the river suffer the actual damage. Disgusting.

EPA responsible? Ya’ think?

Bitterlyclinging | October 23, 2015 at 11:54 am

Former EPA Administrator Al Armendaroz “The EPA enters a new territory in much the same fashion as the Roman Army did, grabbing the first five males they came across and crucifying them. Everyone else goes along after that”
His crime was not for thinking along those lines, but elucidating them so publicly

Insufficiently Sensitive | October 23, 2015 at 12:02 pm

While the temporary treatment plant may cleanse the water remaining in the abandoned mine, the contamination to the agency’s reputation will remain into the foreseeable future.

The water remaining in the mine is not a finite quantity which can be ‘cleansed’, leaving the mine dry. It’s a perpetual stream of groundwater. To stop it would require filling all the mine tunnels, adits, shafts, winzes, drifts, stopes et al with impermeable backfill.

Wrong. The 1%er MBA Capitalists who *ABANDONED* the chemicals in situ are 100% responsible for the spill that occurred while the EPA was TRYING TO CLEAN UP THEIR MESS. Like spoiled bratty children, the 1%er MBA CEO Managers leave messes and expect others to clean them up, and then whine and complain about the cleanup process.

This not at all the EPA’s fault or responsibility. Period. Fact.

    TX-rifraph in reply to Chem_Geek. | October 23, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    So the mine is a problem but it is a stable problem. Intelligent people develop options, consider risks, costs, etc. before any actions are ever taken. TRYING does not cut it. Results count.

    The left “thinks” that intentions trump everything else. They do not–results do. The EPA converted a problem into damage. Their intentions have no standing with adults.

    You should not read LI if you do not like to see one of your gods (The EPA) assaulted with the truth.

      PragmaticBob in reply to TX-rifraph. | October 23, 2015 at 9:26 pm

      Here, in a nutshell is what caused the accident:

      “The uncontrolled release at Gold King Mine was due to a series of events spanning several decades. Groundwater conditions in the upper reaches of Cement Creek have been significantly altered by the establishment of extensive underground mine workings, the extension of the American Tunnel to the Sunnyside Mine, and the subsequent plugging of the American Tunnel. The final events leading to the blowout and uncontrolled release of water occurred due to a combination of an inadequately designed closure of the mine portal in 2009 combined with a misinterpretation of the groundwater conditions when reopening the mine portal in 2014 and 2015.” From the report, p.l.

      Please note that the only one of these activities that the EPA was involved in was the last one. I know you’d just like to blame the EPA because you don’t like them, but it’s not that simple this time. And it won’t be the next time either.

      Read the report. Or not. Facts can be confusing.

        ReallyVeryObnoxious in reply to PragmaticBob. | October 24, 2015 at 1:09 am

        The last two. The EPA made attempts in 2014 and 2015, and only called in the BoR to the site during the middle of the second (after an EPA guy took his vacation). The authors of the report were careful to note a prior consultation of the BoR by the EPA, which showed that the EPA did not have the internal engineering expertise to do what they were trying to do.

        The EPA had years earlier stopped drainage at a lower level. This pushed the drainage up out through higher mines. In 2009, the state of Colorado tried to stabilize drainage at the site. Then the EPA took over trying to do so.

        The report lays part of the blame on doing work one doesn’t have the engineering background, when one does have a lot of environmental knowledge. The EPA was doing a job the BoR thinks it could have and maybe should have done.

    Ragspierre in reply to Chem_Geek. | October 23, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    Yah, no. You’re an idiot.

    This mine is over a century old. You and countless other people have benefited from mines like this one all over the West, and you’re too stupid to get it.

    A lot of the elements (you’re supposed to know SOMETHING about chemical elements) present in the mines are simply “organic” to the rock and soil of the areas. They have nothing to do with the mining operations, BUT even if they are connected, the state is SUPPOSED to deal with them, as the operators LONG ago left the scene.

    I don’t think you can define half the words you used.

    InEssence in reply to Chem_Geek. | October 23, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    This mine had a plug. Everyone thought that contaminated water was behind the plug. The EPA could have drilled through the plug for next to nothing and tested the amount of water. That would be normal procedure. They didn’t test; they bulldozed the plug. It is no one’s fault except the EPA. The only valid response is to dock the pay of all involved by at least 25% for five years.

      PragmaticBob in reply to InEssence. | October 23, 2015 at 9:19 pm

      This is actually incorrect. Drilling through the plug would likely have caused a blowout. At the Red and Bonita mine, EPA drilled *down from above* to determine the depth of the water.

    Milhouse in reply to Chem_Geek. | October 25, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    Bullsh*t. The chemicals in situ were not a problem. They were down a disused mine, where they were doing no harm to anyone. The EPA had no reason to do anything about them.

Henry Hawkins | October 23, 2015 at 4:22 pm

I’d like to point out that neither George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, nor Rush Limbaugh did a damn thing to prevent this.

Does the EPA have plans to remove the heavy metals such as lead and arsenic that have settled to the bottom of the river?

@Leslie, If you want to write an article about a subject like this, it would be good to actually *READ* the report. Your quotes appear to be from another article with a definite slant and, who knows, maybe the author of that article didn’t read the report either. This suggests that you don’t really know what you’re talking about and are simply serving (and drinking) Kool-Aid.

To make it easy for you, here’s the link to the actual report: http://www.usbr.gov/docs/goldkingminereport.pdf.

Having read the report, you would know things that you currently don’t, like the fact that miners in the American Tunnel, below the Gold King mine accidentally dug too close to the bottom of a lake in 1978, resulting in a blowout that dwarfs this one – 500 million gallons as compared to 3 million gallons this time.(p. 16) The report appendix lists 21 major blowouts since 2000, almost all happening due to actions of mining companies, either shortly before the disaster or years before.(p. A-1)

The EPA did do some things wrong, but it wasn’t a “Why didn’t you do X? Duh?” kind of situation. The EPA’s contractor should have drilled down into the mine to see how much water there was and what kind of pressure it was under. They DID do that with the Red & Bonita mine and it was difficult, dangerous and took 3 tries, since they were drilling on a steep slope and the location of the tunnel was not exactly known. The drainage from this mine seemed to be very similar to the other one.

From the report, it’s evident that when reopening a mine portal like this one requires an engineering study by experienced mine engineers and that frequently doesn’t happen, whether it’s to do a clean up OR to reopen the mine to resume mining. Mining activity happened continuously in the Gold King between 1886 and 1923 and then exploration was conducted in the 1970s and 80s. The portal that blew out was constructed in the 1970s because the original entrance at that level had collapsed previously.

Also, the report makes clear that *some* of the hazards of abandoned mines have been recognized and programs put in place to inventory the mines and deal with their hazards. Unfortunately, the potential for blowouts isn’t one of the hazards that the inventory programs knew to look for and going back and finding the places where there is this type of hazard is likely to be expensive.

The report also talks about why Colorado DRMS and federal EPA workers mistakenly thought that the water in the mine was only 5 or 6 feet deep and that the Colorado workers might have come very close to causing a blowout in 2009. In addition, the factors causing the water flow from the mine to diminish (clay soil and accumulation of iron-oxyhydroxide sediments) were causing the water accumulation behind to barrier to get deeper without strengthening the debris dam holding back the water. Eventually, even without the actions taken in 2015, an eventual blowout was likely.

    ReallyVeryObnoxious in reply to PragmaticBob. | October 23, 2015 at 11:32 pm

    There was a letter to the editor in the Silverton Standard that predated the release.

    The letter talked about an EPA experiment at the site, carried out around the time of the letter.

    Per the letter, this wasn’t actually an experiment, as the known principles did not include the possibility that the results would be what the EPA was purporting to do.

    The letter claimed that the EPA had placed a plug to block or limit the flow of water. The letter predicted that the water thus blocked would fill empty spaces, until it reached a height where the pressure head would create a path for the contaminated water to escape. The letter explicitly mentioned the possibility that some material could be released.

    That explanation appears so clear cut that, if correct, malice seems more likely than incompetence. Malice implies two things. One the calculation that the EPA’s constituent-fans will tolerate environmental harm as long as it only hurts the rural poor in flyover country, which they don’t visit. Secondly, that the EPA is a ‘clean up’ jobs program that will create messes to justify headcount.

      ReallyVeryObnoxious in reply to ReallyVeryObnoxious. | October 24, 2015 at 1:47 am

      The BoR’s report on what the EPA thought it was doing is not what I recall the Silverton Standard Letter to the Editor suggested.

      Incompetence seems much more plausible if the BoR report is correct.

    ReallyVeryObnoxious in reply to PragmaticBob. | October 24, 2015 at 1:46 am

    I have read the report now, and I don’t think it supports all of your contentions.

    My summary:

    The site is accessible between late spring/early summer and around now.

    It is possible that this report came out now because the site is snowed in. (The label for figure 26 refers to figure 23 being a photograph, which it is not.)

    After the EPA did some work at a lower site, a number of different higher sites, including this one, started expelling more water. This site in particular needed more attention. Colorado worked on it in 2009, didn’t get through the plug, and didn’t know how high the water was behind the plug. EPA came in 2014, tore out most of CO’s work, and redid it. They did not consult BoR, despite their earlier consultation on this sort of problem suggesting that, in this area, they needed BoR’s help to poor piss out of a boot. EPA comes back in 2015 to redo the work again, realizes they need advice, but are leisurely about getting it. They bring in some BoR consultants, but are in a hurry, and things go sideways.

    Then we have a rush till now to stabilize the site, investigate, and write reports.

    Political message:

    If one is intended, there are two possibilities. 1) EPA shouldn’t be doing this work, we should 2) Not our fault, despite our involvement, it is the EPA’s doing.

    Other comments:

    The 500 blowout was from a lake, and the mine was open enough to empty quickly. The water would have had much less time to leech heavy metals from the rock than did the 3 that sat there for years. It is quite possible that the larger volume had significantly less contamination than the smaller.

    The EPA’s key mistake was taking on work they were probably not qualified for. That SNAFU with mistaking how water seeps through clay is probably not one an engineer competent in the art would make.

    Most likely something would have eventually happened somewhere in the system. As the EPA had taken on maintaining it, it was their responsibility to see that it didn’t happen.

      PragmaticBob in reply to ReallyVeryObnoxious. | October 24, 2015 at 3:40 am

      The work at the lower site (the American Tunnel) was done by the mining company that was operating that mine. They were operating an expensive water treatment plant and wanted to walk away. They persuaded the state of Colorado to sign off on their bulkhead plan. Prior to the placement of bulkheads in the American Tunnel, the Gold King was dry. Here’s a summary: http://www.waterinfo.org/node/5294 .

      You might be right about the 500 million gallon spill, but it’s hard to know. That much water would have washed huge amounts of mine spoil into the Animas. It took 2 years to clean up. And…the mining company drilled the lake bottom where they intended to dig, finding solid rock, but adjacent to the tunnel location was a place where the rock had been eroded away and replaced with till, a kind of soil.

      Here’s a news article about the plugging and the comments of the owner of the Gold King Mine: http://fox6now.com/2015/08/13/gold-king-mine-owner-i-foresaw-disaster-before-epa-spill-into-animas-river-in-colorado/

      Here’s some more detailed info as well: http://jonathanpthompson.blogspot.com/2015/08/the-nitty-gritty-context-behind-gold.html

      Engineers make mistakes too. EPA had successfully dealt with the Red & Bonita mine, which they *thought* was similar. Per the BOR’s recommendation, they drilled and found what they expected. It’s possible that the people on-site thought, like the state of Colorado people had, that the water in the Gold King was in the same situation and so they didn’t need to drill again.

      The report authors were very careful to point out that they didn’t examine the decision making process inside EPA before or after the disaster. That’s a serious limitation.

I remember Obama coming out with his faux courage and being tough on BP during the gulf crisis….crickets now, tough stuff?

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