BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — 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 2-1/2-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.
Many of those are "legacy" mines whose owners have long since abandoned them, leaving taxpayers potentially on the hook for cleanup costs.
There is little money to spend on old mines that could cost tens of billions of dollars to clean up, Jewell said, leaving government officials struggling simply to determine the scope of the problem.
The response to the Gold King spill cost the EPA almost $17 million through Nov. 24, according to an agency spokeswoman.
The spill occurred when workers for EPA and its contractor, Environmental Restoration LLC, started excavation work that was intended to allow them to safely drain the mine.
Among the questions still unanswered is why EPA's cleanup crew was seemingly caught unaware by the accident. A June 2014 EPA work order warned of the potential for a catastrophic blowout at Gold King after pressurized water had built up for years inside the collapsed entrance to the mine.
Federal officials have not released documents related to the Gold King investigation that The AP has sought through public records requests. That includes criticisms over the scope of the Interior evaluation, from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers geotechnical engineer who peer-reviewed the agency's work.
Jewell aide David Palumbo, the deputy commissioner for operations at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said during Wednesday's hearing that pending record requests were under internal review to determine what documents could be released.
There's also lingering disagreement over the role played by Colorado officials in the lead-up to the spill. Colorado officials have said they had no authority to manage, assess or approve any work at Gold King.
But officials from both the EPA and Interior have continued to insist that personnel from the Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mining Safety had agreed to the work being done when the blowout occurred.
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