EPA mine spill could have been prevented

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Water in Colorado County Back to 'Pre-Event Conditions' After Toxic Mining Spill

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- Government investigators squarely blamed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Thursday for a 3 million gallon wastewater spill from a Colorado gold mine, saying an EPA cleanup crew rushed its work and failed to consider the complex engineering involved, triggering the very blowout it hoped to avoid.

The spill that fouled rivers in three states would have been avoided had the EPA team checked on water levels inside the Gold King Mine before digging into its entrance, Interior Department investigators concluded.

The Associated Press obtained the findings on the Aug. 5 spill on Thursday prior to their public release. The report has implications across the United States, where hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines have yet to be cleaned up.

See photos of the mine spill:

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Colorado river mine water spill
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EPA mine spill could have been prevented
In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015 file photo, people kayak in the Animas River near Durango, Colo., in water colored yellow from a mine waste spill. A crew supervised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been blamed for causing the spill while attempting to clean up the area near the abandoned Gold King Mine. Tribal officials with the Navajo Nation declared an emergency on Monday, Aug. 10, as the massive plume of contaminated wastewater flowed down the San Juan River toward Lake Powell in Utah, which supplies much of the water to the Southwest. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP, FILE) 
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 7: The Animas River flows through the center of Durango on August 7, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
SILVERTON, CO - AUGUST 7: Water flows into pits of mine wastewater below the Gold King Mine on August 7, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 7: Kalyn Green, resident of Durango, stands on the edge of the river August 6, 2015 along Animas River. 'I come down to the river every morning before work.' said Green. 'The river in a sense of calm for me.' Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 7: People get their first look at the Gold King Mine wastewater that flowed into the Animas River August 7, 2015 at the 32nd Bridge. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
SILVER TON, CO - AUGUST 7: Water runs through the land that was damaged by the mine wastewater spill August 7, 2015 along Animas River. A crew from Environmental Restoration is on the scene and is flushing water over the land and doing construction on the site. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 7: Mack Goshorn, from Loveland, looks out over the city of Durango on August 6, 2015 along Animas River. Goshorn, a resident of Durango from 1941 to 1955, came back to the city for a funeral of a high school friend. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 7: The Animas River flows through the center of Durango on August 7, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
SILVERTON, CO - AUGUST 7: Mine wastewater pours out of pipes August 7, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
A warning sign from the city is displayed in front of the Animas River as orange sludge from a mine spill upstream flows past Berg Park in Farmington, N.M., Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. About 1 million gallons of wastewater from Colorado's Gold King Mine began spilling into the Animas River on Wednesday when a cleanup crew supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a debris dam that had formed inside the mine. The mine has been inactive since 1923. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 7: Mine wastewater washes up on shore August 7, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Travis Sells, of Farmington, N.M., looks at the orange sludge from a mine spill upstream flowing past Berg Park in Farmington Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. About 1 million gallons of wastewater from Colorado's Gold King Mine began spilling into the Animas River on Wednesday when a cleanup crew supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a debris dam that had formed inside the mine. The mine has been inactive since 1923. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP)
SILVERTON, CO - AUGUST 7: Mine wastewater empties into pits below the mine August 7, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 8: Trisha Rickey sits near the shore of the Animas River after taking pictures of the river August 8, 2015. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater from the Gold King Mine in Silverton has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Onlookers view the Animas River from a bridge as orange sludge from a mine spill upstream flows past Berg Park in Farmington, N.M., Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. About 1 million gallons of wastewater from Colorado's Gold King Mine began spilling into the Animas River on Wednesday when a cleanup crew supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a debris dam that had formed inside the mine. The mine has been inactive since 1923. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP)
Ducks wade in the Animas River as orange sludge from a mine spill upstream flows past Berg Park in Farmington, N.M., Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. About 1 million gallons of wastewater from Colorado's Gold King Mine began spilling into the Animas River on Wednesday when a cleanup crew supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a debris dam that had formed inside the mine. The mine has been inactive since 1923. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 8: Abby Leatherman and Clifford Field work on cleaning a boat that is done for the season August 8, 2015 at Mild and Wild. Three of the 38 guides that are employed at Mild and Wild showed up for work today since all recreational use on the Animas River has been halted since the spill. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater from the Gold King Mine in Silverton has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 6: Residents wait as water comes back in anticipation of the mine wastewater coming downstream August 6, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 6: Residents sit on the edge of the river while waiting a glimpse of the mine wastewater that spilled into the river earlier in the day August 6, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
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The report found that the root causes of the accident began several decades earlier, with changes made by mining companies that altered the flow of groundwater through a series of interconnected tunnels in the extensively mined Upper Animas River watershed.

EPA documents show its officials knew of the potential for a major blowout from the Gold King Mine near Silverton as early as June 2014. EPA officials described the blowout as "likely inevitable" because so much water had built up inside the mine.

The Interior report directly refutes that assertion and says the cleanup team could have used a drill rig to bore into the mine from above to gauge the danger of a blowout.

"This error resulted in development of a plan to open the mine in a manner that appeared to guard against blowout, but instead led directly to the failure," according to engineers from Interior's Bureau of Reclamation who spent two months evaluating the technical circumstances surrounding the accident.

The engineers stopped short of assigning fault to any individuals, despite prior claims from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that the probe would determine if any negligence was involved.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official who reviewed the report expressed "serious reservations" over the EPA's failure to explain exactly how its communications broke down, or to justify why its officials were so insistent on starting the work without more information about the engineering complexities involved.

A separate investigation into the spill is pending from the EPA Inspector General's Office.

EPA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.

The accident fouled rivers in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, temporarily shutting down drinking water supplies and cropland irrigation.

Guidelines for cleaning up such mines focus on details such as water sampling and treatment. Yet they have "little appreciation for the engineering complexity" and require but don't receive significant expertise, the Interior Department's 132-page report concluded.

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