No criminal charges in EPA-caused Colorado mine waste spill

DENVER (Reuters) - No criminal charges will be filed against a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee over a 3-million gallon spill of toxic waste from a defunct Colorado gold mine that fouled waterways across three states, federal authorities said on Wednesday.

Yellow mine waste water from the Gold King Mine is seen in San Juan County, Colorado, in this picture released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) taken August 7, 2015. REUTERS/EPA/Handout

The EPA’s Office of Inspector General said it presented “facts” to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver that the employee may have violated the federal Clean Water Act, and provided false statements to investigators over the discharge from the 2015 disaster.

“On October 6, 2016, the (U.S. Attorney’s Office) declined to prosecute the EPA employee,” the Inspector General’s statement said.

Instead, the inspector general’s office said, it will submit its findings to EPA’s senior management for their review. The agency is required to report back on any administrative action it may take against the employee.

The August 2015 blowout at the Gold King Mine above the town of Silverton was triggered when an EPA contractor hired to slow seepage at the century-old stake breached a tunnel wall, unleashing a torrent of wastewater that had built up behind the mountainside.

The discharge sent some 3 million gallons of water containing nearly 900,000 pounds of heavy metals such arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury into a creek that feeds the Animas River in southwestern Colorado.

The orange-colored sludge then poured downstream into the San Juan River in New Mexico, traversed across Native American land, and ultimately emptied into Lake Powell in Utah days later.

The inspector general conducted the year-long probe at the urging of several members of Congress.

It is unclear from the inspector general’s statement if the unnamed EPA employee was on site, or made decisions that led to the spill.

Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for acting U.S. Attorney Robert Troyer, said the office does not publicly comment on cases that it declines to prosecute.

A review of the accident conducted last fall by engineers with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation concluded that the spill was preventable and was caused by a combination of factors “spanning several decades.”

Among them was a failure by the EPA to take into account nearby mining operations that led to changing groundwater conditions the agency failed to anticipate when it opened a portal at the site in recent years.

The state of New Mexico and Navajo Nation have sued the EPA in federal court over the spill, and the agency has put the area on its Superfund site clean-up list.

Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Bernard Orr