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Oct. 16, 2015: Evaluation Shows EPA’s Missteps in the Gold King Mine Spill

On August 5, 2015, just outside of Silverton, Colorado, an onsite project team of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inadvertently spilled 3 million gallons of acid water that flowed into rivers thought Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and the Navajo Reservation. The spill, which is categorized as a “mine blowout”, was set off while the EPA was excavating an old mine tunnel in Gold King Mine in order to assess the water within. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation’s (BOR) “Technical Evaluation of the Gold King Mine Incident”, the EPA team underestimated the water level inside the mine, so that when they began excavation the pressure from within the mine was released, and broke the dam that held the contaminated water. The acid and sediment from within the mine then flowed downriver, leaving the water a “vivid orange-brown color”.
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As far as responsibility for this disaster goes, the EPA has yet to point the finger at a specific administrator or misstep of their own; instead, the EPA itself called for the BOR’s independent “Technical Evaluation of the Gold King Mine Incident”.

To read the entire evaluation, visit Technical Evaluation of the Gold King Mine Incident.

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The BOR Evaluates EPA’s Role in Gold King Mine Spill

The BOR’S evaluation outlined several factors that contributed to the spill. One significant factor, argues the BOR, is the current government policy (or lack thereof) around “abandoned mine remediation”. For one thing, mine remediation practices are not standardized, and differ from agency to agency and state to state, with little written requirements to keep consistency on each project. Furthermore, the evaluation continues, “The current state of practice appears to focus attention on the environmental issues […] with little appreciation for the engineering complexity of some abandoned mine projects that often require, but do not receive, a significant level of expertise.”

But even in consideration of the institutional problems that precipitated this disaster, the BOR also identifies specific failures:
“In the case of the Gold King incident, there was an absence of the following:
1. An understanding that water impounded behind a blocked mine opening can create hydraulic forces similar to a dam.
2. Analysis of potential failure modes.
3. Analysis of downstream consequences if failure were to occur.
4. Engineering considerations that analyze the geologic and hydrologic conditions of the general area.
5. Monitoring to ensure that the structure constructed to close the mine portal continues to perform as intended.
6. An understanding of the groundwater system affecting all the mines in the area and the potential for work on one mine affecting conditions at another. ”

Dysfunction at EPA May Be to Blame for Gold King Mine Spill

The BOR’s study admittedly has concerns over the EPA’s internal affairs and management of the situation. Even as the evaluation maintains that its only goal is to analyze the raw data and give a strictly technical explanation of the causes and effects of the Gold King Mine blowout, the reviewers of this evaluation (specifically the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) could not with clear conscious ignore the obvious dysfunction within the EPA: “He [the USACE peer reviewer] pointed out that the actual cause of failure is some combination of issues related to EPA internal communications, administrative authorities, and/or a break in the decision path, and that the [EPA’s] report was non-specific regarding the source of [their] information.”

To date, the Gold King Mine spill is costing the EPA $100,000 per day, on top of an initial $14.8 million to clean-up.

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