Justice Department finally launches criminal probe into EPA over mine spill

It was almost exactly one year ago when EPA officials and some of their contractors managed to rupture the abandoned Gold King mine in Colorado, sending millions of gallons of toxic water spilling into various river systems around the area. The impact on Native American communities was particularly brutal and they’ve been fighting with the government ever since. After the initial incident, the EPA conducted an internal investigation and amazingly found that while there may have been some engineering errors and unanticipated conditions at the mine, there was no criminal negligence in evidence and everyone should just move on with their lives.

Now things may finally be changing. At the prompting of members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, the Department of Justice has opened up an investigation into the possibility of criminal wrongdoing. (Government Executive)

The Obama administration is investigating whether any federal officials engaged in criminal activity in the buildup to and aftermath of a leak of wastewater at an abandoned mine last year, which resulted in 3 million gallons of toxic water spilling into multiple rivers in the region.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general launched the probe in conjunction with the Justice Department almost exactly one year after the EPA’s self-created disaster occurred. The IG’s office said it would pause its program evaluation in favor of the new inquiry, as it could not reveal information in its standard report until the investigation concludes…

The announcement came after lawmakers such as Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and John McCain, R-Ariz., requested in May that Justice launch a criminal probe.

“I am glad to see that a criminal investigation into the Gold King Mine disaster is finally under way,” said Barrasso, who chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “Tribal communities in the affected region have been devastated and the EPA has not taken responsibility for the mess it made.”

Barrasso and McCain have been yelling from the rooftops about this for some time, and while the press has largely ignored the unpleasant and politically troubling story, they’ve apparently gotten enough traction to prod the Justice Department into action. That will come as a relief to Native Americans in particular. Members of the Ten Tribes and specifically the Navajo have been seeking help in recovering from a harvest essentially lost to the contamination. Government estimates indicate that 880,000 pounds of heavy metals were flushed into their river and irrigation system right before harvest time, throwing their entire culture into disarray.

But what will happen now that a criminal investigation is underway? Back in September, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said she would fire anyone found accountable for criminal negligence in the incident, but after her determination that the EPA wasn’t actually to blame, that never happened. So now we’re leaving it in the hands of the Justice Department and Loretta Lynch to determine if someone should be prosecuted and disciplined. Yes… that would be the same Attorney General who did such a bang-up job in prosecuting Huma Abedin and Hillary Clinton. With another Obama appointee and her staff under scrutiny, I’m sure we can expect the same level of dogged pursuit which was observed in those investigations.

Don’t hold your breath, folks.


Ed Morrissey Jan 28, 2022 8:31 AM ET