DENVER — U.S. prosecutors have declined to pursue criminal charges against an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency over a massive mine wastewater spill that fouled rivers in three states, a federal watchdog agency said.
The EPA’s Office of Inspector General disclosed Wednesday that it recently presented evidence to prosecutors that the unnamed employee may have violated the Clean Water Act and given false statements.
However, office spokesman Jeffrey Lagda said the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado declined to pursue a case against the employee. In lieu of prosecution, an investigative report will be sent to senior EPA management for review, Lagda said.
An EPA-led cleanup team inadvertently triggered the Aug. 5, 2015, spill while doing work at the Gold King mine near Silverton. The 3-million-gallon blowout tainted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah with an estimated 880,000 pounds of toxic heavy metals including arsenic, mercury and lead.
The spill turned rivers downstream of the site a sickly yellow color until the slug of wastewater had passed.
The Associated Press reported in the aftermath of the spill that the government officials knew of the potential for a catastrophic blowout of poisonous water from the inactive mine. Nevertheless, cleanup work was initiated with only a cursory emergency response plan in place.
EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham said agency personnel would review the investigative report, but she offered no further comment.
Members of Congress had pressed for a criminal investigation into the EPA’s role in the disaster. A review of the accident completed last year by the U.S. Interior Department determined the cleanup crew could have avoided the spill but rushed the work.
Several Republican lawmakers on Wednesday said the lack of a prosecution gives the “appearance of hypocrisy” in light of the Justice Department’s record of pursuit of criminal charges in other cases referred by the EPA.
“By not taking up the case, the Department of Justice looks like it’s going easy on its colleagues in EPA,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
The letter was sent by House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, also of Utah and Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis.
Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton said in a statement that the disaster was “bigger than any one employee” and resulted from numerous failures at EPA.
U.S. Attorney spokesman Jeff Dorschner declined to comment, citing the office’s longstanding practice of not discussing cases where prosecution is declined.
The apparent end of the government’s criminal probe comes after the Inspector General’s Office in July said it had suspended a separate examination of the EPA cleanup program pending the outcome of the investigation.
That separate examination will now resume, the office said. No timeline for completion was provided.
Communities downstream of the spill were forced to temporarily halt drawing water from the rivers for drinking water and irrigation. Water quality in the rivers quickly returned to pre-spill levels, but the political fallout over the accident has endured.
The EPA last month designated Gold King and other nearby abandoned mines as a Superfund site to help fund more extensive cleanup efforts.
Across the U.S., abandoned mining sites send hundreds of millions of gallons of acidic wastewater into creeks and rivers every year. The Obama administration and Democratic lawmakers want to impose a fee on mining companies to cover cleanup costs, but the proposal has gotten little traction in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.
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