For nearly two weeks now, local and national headlines have been dominated by a spill of acidic mine wastewater by an Environmental Protection Agency work crew into a tributary of the Animas River near Silverton. Investigating longstanding but recently accelerated minewater pollution into Cement Creek, workers punched through debris blocking an abandoned mine entrance, unleashing a torrent of yellow water that flowed through Durango and into neighboring states. As of today, the Animas River has re-opened for recreation and irrigation, and work continues to determine the extent of the harm done–with a sense of heightened awareness of the tens of thousands of abandoned mines across the West, many leaking pollution into our precious water supplies.
On the other hand, for some politicians including many local Republicans, this disaster has become an opportunity to attack one of their foremost bêtes noires–an opportunity they’ve seized to the utmost, even at the long-term expense of their own credibility. As the AP reports via the Colorado Springs Gazette:
Authorities say rivers tainted by last week’s massive spill from an abandoned Colorado gold mine are starting to recover, but for the Environmental Protection Agency the political fallout from the disaster could linger.
The federal agency’s critics are already seeking to use its much-maligned handling of the mine spill to undercut the Obama administration’s rollout of major regulations aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions at the nation’s power plants. [Pols emphasis] Members of oversight committees in both the House and Senate say they are planning hearings after Congress returns from its August recess…
For Republicans, it was an opportunity to put the EPA on the defensive.
“I think we have seen what happens when the EPA comes after private industry — they come after them with heavy hand,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. “Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and we have seen a lack of communication and coordination. … This goes to the core competency of the EPA.”
Some responses on the right to the spill, like from Koch-related conservative advocacy group Advancing Colorado, have been laughably ridiculous. But with this latest story, we’re beginning to see press coverage back away from the right’s early success at turning this spill into an EPA hatefest, and the beginnings of recognition that Republicans are misusing the Animas River minewater spill to undermine the EPA on totally unrelated issues.
“The House will continue to monitor the situation and the appropriate committees will conduct rigorous oversight to make sure the administration is assessing the damage the EPA has caused and taking action to clean it up,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “Now that his EPA has accepted full responsibility, I expect President Obama to demand full accountability for what happened here.”
With Republicans from House Speaker John Boehner on down piling on with ever more bellicose anti-EPA talking points, it’s necessary to return to what actually happened in the mountains above Silverton two weeks ago this coming Wednesday. This weekend, one of many excellent stories on the spill published in the Durango Herald got to the heart of the matter far better than most coverage we’ve seen. Contrary to what Boehner, Cory Gardner, and all the other Republicans hoping to exploit this spill for unrelated political gains are saying, the EPA was working to clean up pollution, not create it. The EPA did not “cause” the pollution in the mines above Silverton, private mining interests did.
In fact, the EPA has been trying to solve the problem for years. Who resisted? The local population of Silverton, and the mostly corporate owners of the mines doing the polluting.
Three million gallons of sludge rushed out of Gold King Mine last week, flooding the Animas River with higher levels of metals than usual, causing economic and environmental damage in three states. Yet in the wake of the disaster, many Silvertonians are redoubling their resistance to a Superfund listing the Environmental Protection Agency has long argued is necessary to deal with the town’s network of draining mines…
Tim Hewett said the “pro-Superfund forces are very vocal right now,” but the majority of the town’s residents still oppose any such listing on the National Priorities List, fearing the designation will ruin the town’s reputation, strangle credit and blight the local economy.
…But to the thousands of people living downstream of Silverton, the problem isn’t so much the EPA as it is Silverton residents’ decades-long refusal to accept that their mines require federal intervention. [Pols emphasis]
Here’s the bottom line: a few people in the small town of Silverton, along with mining companies like Canadian Kinross Gold who would someday like to restarting mining operations there, have deliberately fought off a Superfund designation for many years. Their fight to “protect” the town’s “reputation” and mining profit center from the EPA has endangered communities downstream along the Animas River that number in the tens of thousands–17,000 in Durango, almost 50,000 in Farmington, New Mexico.
It’s got to end, folks. The political abuse of this spill to attack the EPA on unrelated issues is a massive insult to the intelligence of the voters, and reporters and news outlets who subsidize this attack are grossly disserving the public. The true cause of this disaster, mining companies unwilling to clean up their mess, and local interests too fearful for the future of their almost-ghost town to make waves, is in no way the fault of the EPA. The EPA was up there trying to determine the extent of a problem everyone knew was getting worse. Blaming the EPA is like blaming the paramedic who arrives to treat your injuries.
Protect the jobs of hundreds, or the health and well-being of tens of thousands? That’s the real question at stake here, and it’s the question that opportunistic grandstanding Republican politicians, deep-pocketed polluter mining companies, and a few short-sighted residents of an old Colorado mining town hope you never ask.
Because the answer is obvious.