EPA worker will not be prosecuted for mine spill role
FARMINGTON — The Colorado U.S. Attorney's Office will not prosecute a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee in connection to the Gold King Mine spill.
The decision was reached on Oct. 6 and after the EPA's Office of Inspector General submitted information about whether the employee may have violated the Clean Water Act and provided false statements, according to an update released this week by the Office of Inspector General.
Jeffery Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Colorado, declined to comment about the decision today. The update does not name the employee or provide details about the allegations.
The update states the Office of Inspector General will prepare and submit a Report of Investigation to the EPA's senior management for review. There is no requirement to submit the report by a certain time, Office of Inspector General spokesman Jeff Lagda said.
EPA officials have taken responsibility for causing the August 2015 mine blowout that released approximately 880,000 pounds of heavy metals into a tributary of the Animas River.
Congressional delegates from New Mexico remain steadfast in holding accountable those responsible for the spill.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he looks forward to reviewing the Office of Inspector General report and will ensure the EPA acts on the findings.
"This decision will not affect my work one bit to ensure the people who are still hurting as a result of the spill are compensated," Udall said in an emailed statement, adding he continues to push the EPA to reimburse state and local governments for responding to the spill.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in an email the EPA's course of action for cleaning up the mine "fell far short of the standards." He added communities need reimbursement for response costs and called for reforming outdated policies regarding mine cleanup.
"We shouldn't wait for more disasters to strike. Western communities deserve full and complete protection of their water, land and livelihoods," Heinrich said.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said he is "deeply concerned" by the EPA's failures and will "closely" review the report findings.
"In the meantime, I will continue to fight to make the affected communities whole, to ensure robust long-term water quality monitoring, and to prevent a disaster like this from occurring again," Luján said in an email.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye was among those who visited the mine in the days that followed the spill.
Begaye said EPA administrators and engineers were informed by hydrologists and other experts the mine was unsafe.
"It was the administrators who had these documents that were aware of potential explosions and the pressure that had built up," he said in an email. "They knew about this and they did nothing. They allowed a single worker to sit in the backhoe and start to clean out the area."
Begaye added that to place blame on one individual is "unfounded."
Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates said the decision by the Colorado U.S. Attorney's Office has no impact on the lawsuit the tribe filed against the EPA and other entities in August.
"The nation has spoken and is holding the U.S. EPA responsible," Bates said in a phone interview.
The action by the attorney's office also prompted response from leaders of two House committees.
Reps. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., have asked U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to meet with the committees by Oct. 26 to explain the decision.
In their letter to Lynch, they wrote that congressional staff learned about the Colorado U.S. Attorney's decision on Tuesday during a conference call with the Office of Inspector General.
During the call, the office stated it found evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the EPA, the letter states.
"By not taking up the case, the Department of Justice looks like it is going easy on its colleagues in EPA," the representatives wrote.
A staff member with the Committee on Natural Resources, which Bishop chairs, said Lynch had not respond to the request as of today.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.