This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
A lot more than three million gallons of yellow sludge washed out of Colorado's Gold King mine in August. It turns out a good chunk of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's credibility came pouring down, too.
A technical team from the U.S. Department of Interior issued its independent report this week that says EPA, which is in charge of the defunct mine, literally didn't know what it was doing when it started digging with heavy equipment to open a portal in the mine. That led to toxins flowing into rivers in three states, including Utah.
Instead of just poking that fateful hole, the report says, the agency should have first drilled from the top to figure out how much was dammed up behind. That was apparently considered but rejected for cost and time factors, a decision that has now added much more cost and time.
What's more, the report says, this is apparently standard operating procedure for EPA. The report called the Gold King disaster "somewhat emblematic of the current state of practice in abandoned mine remediation."
The spill prompted the usual bombast from Utah's House members about federal incompetence on Western public lands, but about this we must be clear: Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz were absolutely right. EPA has proven it can't be trusted on this.
And, as a result, Bishop and Chaffetz are within their purview to let their dogs go. They had already questioned EPA turning to another executive branch agency, the Interior Department, for this technical report, and the report only adds impetus for the legislative branch to perform its check-and-balance duties.
The Interior report did not assign blame to any specific individuals, but that had better be coming, given that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy promised shortly after the spill that EPA would determine any fault and negligence.
The damage caused by EPA goes beyond one spill or even one agency. The negligence or incompetence in this case helps feed the anti-federal sentiment in the Four Corners area that is preventing a rational discussion of public land use.
In reality, this spill is not an argument for less federal land ownership or less federal oversight of abandoned mines, but it's a stark reminder that bureaucracies can fail, and sometimes they fail big. The nation's environmental watchdog needs to be more carefully watched.