A press release from Koch brothers-linked conservative group Advancing Colorado kicks off our look at the mine wastewater spill near Silverton that’s been making nationwide headlines for several days. As anyone who doesn’t live in a mine knows by now, a federal Environmental Protection Agency crew working last week on remediation of mine water pollution accidentally dislodged debris holding back a vast quantity of polluted mine water in a complex of abandoned mines along Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River, sending a massive flood that’s been festering in the area for many years surging through Durango and into New Mexico toward the Colorado River drainage system.
As Advancing Colorado’s press release today makes clear, the disaster presents a political opportunity for the EPA’s legion of haters on the right to dump their pre-existing animus into the Animas:
“The so-called Environmental ‘Protection’ Agency needs to be held responsible for the disaster they created and the damage they have inflicted on our environment and economy. This environmental disaster is just one more example of why people do not trust the job-killing EPA and we have every right to question why our hard-earned money is going to such an incompetent and mismanaged government agency. This is now a multi-state issue, and people have every right to be absolutely outraged with the EPA, and the officials who continue to provide support and cover for this agency.”
In news coverage this weekend, Republican politicians affected maximum indignation over the idea that the government agency charged with protecting the environment had “caused” an environmental disaster:
“We’re hearing that this is somewhat to be expected living in a mining region, but what is very clear from this is the communications were not adequate, and they underestimated how severe this was,” state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, said Friday. “It does have significant consequences, both in terms of the environmental issue and in terms of trust.
“The Animas River, to Durango and Southwest Colorado, is not just a river, it is our lifeblood in so many ways,” she said. “What we see before us is horrifying, so I think I personally have very high expectations of what the EPA is going to do to fix this.”
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton piled on for good measure:
“Coloradans deserve to know the EPA’s plan for cleaning up the mess they’ve made and their plan for the long-term restoration of the river habitat impacted,” Gardner said…
“The poor communication is unacceptable,” Tipton said in a statement. “If a mining operator or other private business caused the spill to occur, the EPA would be all over them. The EPA admits fault, and as such must be accountable and held to the same standard.”
As the story is being told on talk radio and other conservative media channels, the EPA may as well have been the ones who dug these mines, extracted all the gold and other metal resources, and left them to fester for the next generation to clean up. We get that anyone who has found themselves on the wrong end of the EPA’s regulations, from gold mines to coal mines, would feel a vengeful urge to lash out–or, as with Advancing Colorado’s press release above, to order your “grassroots” surrogates to do so. Politicians backed by industries that chafe under EPA regulations are similarly jumping at the chance to score points off this EPA remediation crew’s misfortune.
But without that ulterior motive driving the criticism, it falls apart under even casual scrutiny. Of course the EPA didn’t dig these privately-owned abandoned mines, mines that were spewing polluted water at the rate of hundreds of gallons per minute for years before this spill. The EPA was working in the mines above Silverton to remediate this pollution, with a goal of removing heavy metals from the runoff before it flowed into the Animas River at all. The mines in question were not being adequately maintained by their private owners, Sunnyside Gold Corp. Private remediation attempts to stanch the flow of mine waste arguably made the problem worse, and that mining company’s offer of $6.5 million to absolve itself from further liability was totally inadequate. Designation of the area as an EPA Superfund site, which would make far greater resources for cleanup available, is actually opposed by local interests in Silverton, in part because they would like mining to someday resume–and a Superfund cleanup onsite would obviously make that a problem.
Bottom line: there is a lot of information still to be released about what exactly happened at the entrance to the Gold King Mine last Wednesday, but we know that the larger problem of thousands of mines across Colorado and the West leaching pollution into our water supplies is a problem the EPA is working to solve–not to worsen. With billions in private profits extracted from our mountains at a time when no protections existed to ensure it was done safely, responsibility now falls to the EPA to protect today’s citizens from harm. Without question, if the EPA’s actions cause harm, they’re responsible for that too. But the original cause of this disaster–private mining interests who sought to maximize profits and skirt liability at every step–cannot be laid at the EPA’s feet.
And to attempt to do that for usual-suspect political purposes, bashing the EPA over this spill because you don’t believe in climate change or because you take money from the fossil fuel industry, should outrage everyone impacted by it.