Most Americans — 75% of the U.S. population, in fact — rely on centralized wastewater collection and treatment systems to ensure water supplies are safe for consumption. Americans also rely on organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency to, as their name suggests, safeguard both the planet and the general public. However, government investigators have concluded that the EPA failed on both counts in its 2015 excavations around the Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado, when the agency’s lack of regulations resulted in a massive wastewater spill that contaminated rivers in three different states.
During an EPA-led contractor crew excavation in 2015 at the inactive Gold King Mine, the collapse of a debris pile blocking the mine’s entrance caused 3 million gallons of wastewater tainted with copper, arsenic, iron, aluminum, lead, and other heavy metals to be released into rivers in Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. Investigators recently announced that the EPA had no rules for working around inactive mines at the time they inadvertently caused the spill.
The inspector general’s report said the EPA knew the Gold King Mine was at risk of a blowout; before that fateful day, the mine was already spilling out 200 gallons of wastewater every minute, according to the report. Still, officials found the EPA had “no specific standards for the level of care to be taken or how to assess a collapsed mine portal.” Although the EPA’s on-scene coordinators were experienced and highly trained, state, federal, and Native American tribal officials have criticized the EPA for failing to take basic precautions, like drilling into the mine to determine pent-up water levels inside.
The EPA has also been chastised for how (and whether) they notified local, state, and tribal authorities after the spill occurred. Some officials said they didn’t learn about the incident until hours later; others said they never heard anything directly from the EPA at all. And while the EPA inspector general found that the agency had followed all of its own rules for notification, the report stresses the need for communication improvements.
This report is at least the sixth review of the spill. The EPA itself conducted three separate reviews of the incident, with one conducted by the Bureau of Reclamation and one by federal prosecutors. Following the spill, the EPA commenced work on improving its own safety standards.
The agency is also exploring its options for stopping the spill. At the top of the list is the possibility of closing a manmade dam situated near the Gold King Mine, inside one of the nearby mountains. But closing that dam does pose the risk of redirecting the toxic flow through natural springs. EPA officials have begun to map the terrain and hope to close the dam at the Red and Bonita Mine next year.