Federal criminal investigation ongoing into Gold King Mine disaster

The scene of the spill at the Gold King Mine in Colorado. Photo from EPA

Criminal charges are possible in connection with the Gold King Mine disaster that polluted the waters on three reservations a year ago this month.

The Environmental Protection Agency was overseeing operations at the abandoned mine in Colorado when at least three million gallons of toxic waste entered the water system. The pollution traveled through the reservations of the Southern Ute Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado before going through the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation, causing numerous problems for farmers and ranchers there.

The Office of Inspector General at the EPA has been conducting an evaluation of the program that's at issue in the disaster. But in newly-disclosed letters to members of Congress, the agency said those efforts have been suspended due to an ongoing "criminal investigation" of the August 5, 2015, incident.

As a result, the EPA said it won't be releasing the results of the evaluation to Congress until that probe is complete.

"Many of your questions to us, including those that go to the heart of what you asked us to address, directly implicate and will have to be answered in part by investigative results that are not currently releasable," Carolyn Cooper, the EPA's assistant inspector general for program evaluation, wrote in June 29 letters to key lawmakers.

Word of the criminal probe was welcomed by Republicans on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The panel convened two hearings -- one in Washington, D.C., and another in Arizona -- and took the EPA to task with the way federal officials dealt with tribes after the spill.

“I am glad to see that a criminal investigation into the Gold King Mine disaster is finally underway,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee, said in a press release on Monday. “Tribal communities in the affected region have been devastated and the EPA has not taken responsibility for the mess it made. I hope this investigation uncovers who is at fault and holds them responsible. We will be watching closely.”

The Southern Ute Tribe was the first government to declare a disaster in response to the spill. The tribe also notified New Mexico about the spill well before the EPA did, a top official from the state said last year.

Leaders of the Navajo Nation were the first elected officials to travel to the actual site of the spill, long before the EPA showed up. President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez shared dramatic photos and video that showed the extent of the disaster and its impact on the water systems in the region.

Navajo farmers lost numerous crops and ranchers kept water from their livestock for months due to concerns about the pollution. The tribe is still looking for compensation from the EPA.

“If the Gold King Mine spill would have taken place in Connecticut, the response would have been totally different," Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) said at a recent meeting with Begaye and Nez, according to a press release from the tribe. “I don’t think the response was adequate for this disaster.”

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