| Environmental Protection Agency

Justice Department won't prosecute EPA worker over Colorado mine disaster

The Justice Department has decided not to prosecute an Environmental Protection Agency employee for a massive toxic spill from an EPA-supervised Colorado mine.

An EPA spokesman made the announcement this week after a year-long probe by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

In an email to AMI Newswire, Jeffrey Lagda said the Department of Justice made the decision not to prosecute the worker on Oct. 6 after the OIG’s Office of Investigations presented facts about the spill to U.S. Attorney’s Office officials in Colorado. The information involved whether the EPA worker may have violated provisions of the Clean Water Act and made false statements to OIG investigators, Lagda said.

The August 2015 spill at the abandoned Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado released about 3 million gallons of water containing arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. The toxic flow contaminated the Animas and San Juan rivers, and the pollution spread downstream into parts of Utah and New Mexico.

Three committee heads in the House of Representatives blasted the Justice Department’s inaction and demanded that department representatives brief members of their committees on why no criminal charges were filed.

“By not taking up the case, the Department of Justice looks like it is going easy on its colleagues at the EPA,” Republican Reps. Jason Chaffetz, Rob Bishop and Cynthia Lummis said in their letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “Its lack of action on these charges gives the appearance of hypocrisy and seems to indicate that there is one set of rules for private citizens and another for the federal government.”

The Congress members brought up a case in 2013, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado prosecuted a business owner in Longmont for discharging 1,000 gallons of sewage into a ditch leading to a reservoir.
  
Prosecutors alleged a clear violation of the Clean Water Act, and as a result the business owner was slapped with a $10,000 fine, the congressional letter said.

“The EPA disaster deserves the same level of accountability to which private citizens are held, said the Congressmen, who requested a congressional briefing on the matter no later than Oct. 26.

In hearings held last fall before the House Oversight Committee, panel members blamed the spill on incompetent EPA officials and contractors hired for the mine remediation. But EPA officials said they acted responsibly and have earmarked tens of millions of dollars to clean up the spill. Meanwhile, the water quality of the rivers involved has returned to pre-spill levels.

The costs associated with the spill may total up to $27.7 billion, according to a report given during a U.S. Senate hearing.

“Furthermore, research conducted by Oversight Committee staff indicates a large gap between the number of criminal referrals from inspectors general across the federal government and the number of prosecutions taken up by the department,” the congressional letter said.

Justice Department officials declined to prosecute charges against the EPA employee on the same day the OIG evidence was presented to them, the letter said.

The OIG will submit what’s known as a report of investigation to the EPA’s senior managers, but it’s then up to the EPA to determine if any administrative actions will be taken as a result of the investigation, Lagda said.

Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, whose district includes the Gold King Mine, said the EPA actions -- or lack of actions – in response to the spill involved failures at different levels of the agency and cannot be limited to a single employee.

"The EPA's irresponsible actions led to ... a disaster that has lasting impacts in communities that have yet to be compensated for the loss of business and damage caused ..." Tipton said. “I will continue to work to make sure responsible parties are held accountable and affected communities are compensated and made whole.”