One of America’s founding principles is the public’s right to know what their government is doing. The framers of the Constitution mentioned no exceptions, not even for national security, but a free press was permanently enshrined in the First Amendment, because a vigilant citizenry was — and is — the only sure long-term guardian of our liberties.
That is why Americans often make heroes of those who expose wrong-doing, like Senator Thomas Walsh, who outed the bribery scandal at Teapot Dome that sent an Interior Secretary to prison, or Peter Buxton, the brave young health official who exposed horrific Tuskegee experiments that injected black men with horrible diseases. Journalism students will always study the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein in uncovering Watergate, and of Gary Webb, the San Jose writer whose “Dark Alliance” articles revealed CIA complicity in the 1990s California drug trade. Literary historians will always honor Emile Zola, who went to prison for libel but was ultimately vindicated for exposing the truth about the Dreyfus Affair in 1890s France.
Last month saw another textbook example of such cover-ups with the release of an Inspector General’s “final” report on EPA actions that resulted in poisoning the Animas River in 2015 with toxic sludge from the Gold King Mine above Silverton. Two years of government investigations and reports have been increasingly implausible, revealing government officials determined to blame someone else for their incompetence. The IG’s office may label their report “final,” but it is far from the last word on this. The truth will not be brushed under the rug forever.
My friend Rob Gordon ran a year-long investigation of the disaster as staff director of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. His comprehensive analysis, in the June 14 Daily Signal, shows both a shocking level of incompetence, and an obfuscation by EPA officials trying to deny, hide, and transfer blame. It is fascinating reading for those with calm tempers, and it reveals a golden opportunity for the new Administration.
Administrator Scott Pruitt is committed to refocusing the EPA on its core mission, shifting from a reliance on punitive enforcement toward more positive environmental partnerships, and ending the secrecy surrounding many agency practices. As Gordon says, the Gold King Mine cover-up provides Mr. Pruitt and his team a chance to demonstrate a new and improved EPA. Thanks to Gordon’s report, it is served up on a silver platter, much of the investigative work already done.
That means ending this cover-up would not be difficult. All the documents needed to get at the truth are already in the government’s possession. Clearly, EPA officials knew the old mine had a collapsed tunnel, behind which water had accumulated, as is common in many mines. Fine clay and soil eventually filled the gap and formed a natural plug, and the pool of water behind it had built up considerable pressure. EPA knew this, as did the State, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the EPA’s contractor. Their own report says they were onsite trying to relieve hydrologic pressure, so later claims that they didn’t expect the blowout are disingenuous. Yet the EPA’s contractor, working to drain that water in accordance with the agency’s plan, went way beyond inserting a drainpipe, and actually dug away the plug, which blew out under the pressure, flooding the river for hundreds of miles, jeopardizing important water supplies in Colorado and New Mexico. Anyone else would have paid millions in fines, and probably gone to jail.
EPA’s internal report called the disaster an “incident,” asserting that its crew was just clearing a bedrock face, not touching the plug. Somehow, they claim, the bedrock just crumbled and the mine plug blew. The Interior Department produced an independent report, also using the term “incident,” and saying EPA had discussed a different plan, but the Interior report was nebulous about why the contractor excavated the plug, contrary to that plan. The Corps of Engineers, asked to peer-review Interior’s report, questioned why it was considered urgent to dig out the plug, rather than wait for Reclamation’s technical guidance, as planned.
The night before a congressional hearing, EPA issued an addendum, explaining that a vacationing supervisor had given written instructions to his substitute, outlining steps to remove part of the plug. The report nevertheless claims he verbally told the crew not to do so. Now the final Inspector General’s report repeats the same company line: that the crew was digging high above the plug, preparing the site for the experts to examine, when the mine inexplicably burst open. However, as Gordon points out, the congressional committee now has the written internal memos, emails, and photographs proving otherwise. The IG’s report also continues the earlier explanation that EPA assumed the mine floor was lower, so the water would not be pressurized, though photographs taken throughout the process prove all those assumptions are false, and the agency either knew it, or should have known it.
At a minimum, the “incident” shows the most blatant incompetence and negligence, which resulted in environmental damage for which there are very severe penalties in the law. There is no chance whatsoever that the EPA would ignore such an “accident” committed by anyone else in the country, nor conclude that there just isn’t anything further to be said about it. In this case, the reaction was to seek Superfund designation for 30 more old mines in the vicinity, so EPA can continue its work there forever, with untold millions of tax dollars coming their way. It is the last thing Congress should allow. EPA is clearly the last organization in the country that should be in charge of such projects — at least until it is clear what will be done about this disaster and the even-worse cover-up.
EPA’s new leadership should uncover the truth, tell the public exactly what happened, rid the payroll of those responsible, and implement measures to see that it never happens again.
Some government secrets remain forever enshrouded in mystery: the rabbit that attacked Jimmy Carter, the Philadelphia Experiment, and the Roswell UFO incident, to name a few. But the Gold King Mine disaster is not a mystery. It is time for this EPA cover-up to end; thanks to the work of Rob Gordon and others, the truth will come out anyway. As Churchill said, “Truth is incontrovertible; ignorance can deride it, panic may resent it, malice may destroy it, but in the end, there it is.”
An abbreviated version of this column appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.