On August 5th, 2015, a crew working for the Environmental Protection Agency in the disused mines above Silverton, Colorado made a mistake. Their mistake opened a mine full of toxic wastewater left over from decades of gold mining by a range of operations from small mining claims to large corporate-owned mine works. The Eureka Graben the mines near Silverton punch into contains rich veins of gold, silver and copper ores, but the local geology is naturally conducive to toxic leaching of metals into water through the porous mountain. This problem has been immeasurably worsened by mining and pulverized waste rock the water now flows through.
The massive torrent of toxic minewater from the EPA’s spill at the Gold King Mine roared down the Animas River, which flows from its headwaters near Silverton to the city of Farmington, New Mexico where it joins the San Juan River on its way to Lake Powell. The opaque orange-yellow waters made nationwide headlines. The EPA, exhibiting all the hamfisted bureaucratic ineptitude you would expect in government public relations, managed to make themselves look substantially less than caring in the first 24 hours after the accident while they figured out what had happened.
And then it got political.
Obviously, the EPA didn’t create the mine wastewater pollution that had backed up inside the Gold King Mine. The EPA crew was attempting to assess the mine in advance of trying to remediate what everyone knew was a serious and worsening problem. In the aftermath of the spill, the eccentric small-claim owner of the Gold King Mine bickered with the large Canadian gold mining corporation who worked nearby mines over whose works caused the buildup. The local government in Silverton and San Juan County, heavily beholden to mining interests but suddenly in the national spotlight as pollution from their community flowed through vastly larger populations, has been forced to reckon with the fact that this is a much bigger problem than one spill. After decades of intransigence, they have dropped their longstanding objections to–wait for it–full EPA intervention in the minewater pollution problem via a once-reviled “Superfund” designation.
While the EPA gets ready to do what it has been trying to do for years, that is bring the resources needed to remediate this huge problem to bear, the Animas River spill has been used as a political voodoo doll by Republican politicians eager to snipe at the agency for a range of totally unrelated pet peeves–from climate change to fracking to offshore drilling and everything in between. This accidental spill of minewater for which the EPA has accepted responsibility from the beginning has been used as a talking point on subjects that have nothing whatsoever to do with the incident or the issue of minewater pollution at all. Instead of representing the best interests of a large city like Durango, the area’s GOP Rep. Scott Tipton took potshots at the EPA and opposed Superfund designation even as locals were moving toward it.
Before the political circus subsided, Utah legislators were openly suggesting some kind of crackpot conspiracy, and Ben Carson held a completely superfluous campaign event in Durango with the Animas River as his backdrop. Republican demands that the EPA be “held to the same standard as private companies” ignored the plain reality that the EPA was cleaning up after private companies. Later, when another comparatively tiny mine wastewater remediation incident occurred in another part of the state, Denver media made asses of themselves trying to sensationalize it over the outrage of locals.
The net effect of all of this is a bizarre duality in which the EPA is finally getting to consensus on what is needed to deal with this longstanding and very serious problem of minewater pollution above Silverton, and is at the same time being demonized politically by Republican politicians for even being on the scene. Nobody is excusing the EPA of responsibility for the spill itself, but you have to feel a least a little sympathetic about all the silly and tangential ways it’s been used against them.
With toxic minewater polluting thousands of waterways across the West, we need the grownups to win the argument.