- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Wednesday she is unaware of anyone being fired, fined or even demoted for the Gold King Mine spill, prompting Republicans to accuse her of taking the EPA off the hook for the toxic blowout.

“So you’re letting the EPA get off scot-free it sounds like. They are not being held accountable,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republican, at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing.

Republicans took Ms. Jewell to task for the Interior Department’s investigation into the Aug. 5 spill, saying the October report failed to hold anyone responsible for unleashing 3 million gallons of orange, toxic wastewater into the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado.

“You’re directly responsible for this report. The EPA had promised this committee a thorough investigation,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican. “We have not gotten one. What we have gotten is a complete, deliberate whitewash.”

Mr. Lamborn asked if anyone had been fired or fined after the spill, to which she replied, “Not that I’m aware of.” Asked if she was aware of anyone being demoted, she referred the question to the EPA.

Asked if she had even yelled at anyone, Ms. Jewell responded, “No, I have not yelled at anybody over this.”

Ms. Jewell defended the Interior investigation, saying it was confined to a technical review of the incident to determine its cause, not to assign blame. The report concluded that the EPA team touched off the spill by removing debris without first testing the water level within the mine.

“I think if you review the technical report, it clearly identifies issues where there turned out to be an error in judgment on the part of EPA,” Ms. Jewell said. “That’s hardly not holding them accountable. It is in fact holding them accountable.”

But Republicans said that excuse wouldn’t fly if a private company had been at fault for violating the Clean Water Act with the blowout, instead of the EPA.

“Yeah, it’s unintentional, but there are still consequences here,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, Arizona Republican. “I hope you understand the frustration here. The bureaucracy does not take care of itself because it holds nobody accountable.”

Mr. McClintock listed examples of far smaller spills that have met with fines, criminal penalties and even jail time. He cited the 1994 case of an Alaska backhoe operator who accidentally spilled more than 1,000 gallons of heating oil into a river, resulting in a six-month prison sentence for a company official not at the scene.

“So here’s the double standard. If you’re a private citizen and you have an accident with a backhoe, you go to jail over spilling 1,500 gallons,” Mr. McClintock said. “If you’re an EPA official responsible for negligently spilling 3 million gallons of contaminant, you might get yelled at by the EPA administrator, but don’t worry, the Secretary of the Interior won’t say anything. Do you understand how galling that is to the American public?”

Ms. Jewell challenged that comparison, saying, “EPA’s trying to do a job of cleaning up a problem it did not create.”

“I think it’s a little bit different to compare that to a private company that is in fact mining or doing other work,” she said.

At the same time, she said she didn’t know who made the decision to breach the wall without conducting a test of the hydrostatic pressure, which had been done previously at the nearby Red and Bonita Mine.

House Democrats argued that the spill was relatively minor compared with the estimated 330 million gallons of wastewater that leaks annually from abandoned mines at the Animas River watershed.

“That’s 100 times more pollution going into the river than the Aug. 5 spill, and the reason that the EPA was working at the site in the first place,” said Rep. Niki Tsongas, Massachusetts Democrat.

Instead of focusing on the EPA spill, Democrats called for more funding to clean up thousands of leaking mines across the West, many left over from the Gold Rush, which Rep. Raul Grijalva, Arizona Democrat, described as “ticking time bombs.”

“I’m glad you’re here to discuss the real problem, the hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines that are leaking billions of gallons of toxic wastewater into streams and rivers across the country,” said Mr. Grijalva. “These abandoned mines were created by the mining industry, not the Environmental Protection Agency, and we should not forget that.”

Ms. Jewell repeatedly characterized the spill as an accident, saying, “There’s nothing in our technical review that suggested that there was any deliberate act to breach the mine.”

Immediately after the hearing, chairman Rob Bishop requested a Government Accountability Office review of the Interior report.

“The Department of the Interior’s stonewalling the Committee’s repeated requests for information on the agency’s report reached a disturbing level today when Secretary Jewell effectively refused to answer Congress’ concerns about the report’s objectivity and scope,” Mr. Bishop said.

The Utah Republican grilled Ms. Jewell on the report’s objectivity. Personnel from the Bureau of Reclamation, a branch of the Interior Department, were involved in the investigation as well as the EPA cleanup.

“How can you say this report is even remotely independent when the lead author is working with EPA and has been doing so for some time before he started his investigation?” Mr. Bishop asked.

Ms. Jewell said she disagreed “with the premise it was not independent. I believe it was independent.”

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