Republicans alleged a “whitewash” of a Colorado mining accident that unleashed 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater and requested a nonpartisan investigation after the Interior secretary said Wednesday there was no evidence of criminal negligence.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup crew doing excavation work triggered the spill in August at the inactive Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado. It fouled rivers in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico with contaminants including arsenic and lead, temporarily shutting down drinking-water supplies and raising concerns about long-term effects to agriculture.
The accident prompted harsh criticism of the EPA for failing to take adequate precautions despite warnings a blowout could occur. Yet Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said a review by her agency showed the spill was “clearly unintentional.”
“I don’t believe there’s anything in there to suggest criminal activity,” Jewell testified during an appearance before the House Natural Resources Committee.
Republicans were dissatisfied. They pointed to earlier statements in which Jewell and other agency officials said the Interior review focused on technical mining issues – not the potential culpability of those involved in the spill.
Immediately after Wednesday’s hearing, committee Chairman Rob Bishop asked Congress’s non-partisan Government Accountability Office to investigate the Interior Department’s evaluation. The Utah Republican accused Jewell and other agency officials of stonewalling his repeated efforts to obtain documents relevant to the spill.
Bishop also questioned why the authors of the Interior evaluation included an agency official, civil engineer Michael Gobla, who discussed cleanup work at Gold King with EPA prior to the spill. Gobla also worked with the EPA during its response to the accident.
“How can you claim this report was even remotely independent?” Bishop asked.
California Republican Rep. Tom McClintock later added that the Interior review was “a complete and deliberate whitewash.”
The EPA Inspector General’s Office is conducting a separate investigation.
With assistance from the minority Democrats on the House panel, Jewell sought repeatedly during Wednesday’s two-and-a-half-hour hearing to steer the conversation to the broader issue of tens of thousands of abandoned mines on public and private lands across the U.S.
“We are having another hearing that ignores the elephant in the room. Instead we are looking at a scapegoat,” said Rep. Don Beyer, Democrat-Virginia.