John McCain finally got a criminal investigation into the Gold King Mine spill. Now what?

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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The Environmental Protection Agency confirmed Friday that it is conducting a criminal investigation into the spill at the Gold King Mine. The spill dumped millions of gallons of waste into the Animas River in southwestern Colorado last August.

A criminal investigation is notable because, obviously, it brings the possibility that someone could be arrested. The EPA says it’s happening now because two U.S. Senators — John McCain and John Barrasso, both Republicans — asked the government for it.

What could the crime have been?

Specifically, the senators said that the EPA didn’t run the proper tests before trying to excavate the mine, which was sealed at the time, for a clean-up operation. Liquid pressure built up inside the sealed mine. When work crews dug into the plug, the waste blew out, according to the senators’ letter.

An investigation could turn up proof of criminal negligence, false statements or obstruction of government proceedings, the letter stated.

Who is investigating?

The EPA’s independent investigations unit (the Office of Inspector General) is running the criminal inquiry. In a news release, the only reason listed for the criminal investigation was the request by the senators and other elected officials.

The senators asked that the Department of Justice run its own probe. It’s unclear whether that’s happening (we’re waiting on their comment) — so it’s possible McCain and Barrasso haven’t gotten everything they wanted here.

What was the damage?

The “acidic plume” dumped lead, mercury, arsenic and other metals into the Animas River. The senators wrote that “1,500 farms on the Navajo Nation were devastated,” with damage to crops, soil, livestock, wildlife, irrigation and drinking water.