Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper declared the Animas River a disaster on August 8 after, as the Wilderness Society put it, Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, “spewed 3 million gallons of wastewater” containing arsenic, lead, copper and cadmium into the river on August 5.
Of course, nobody is mad at the Gold King Mine, which has been inactive since 1923, or a mining industry that had no regulation at all until 1970, or the fact that “40% of the headwaters in the West are affected by mine run-off.” They’re not mad about deregulation, or the Senate and House of Representatives for their roll in that deregulation, or for their attacks on the EPA and its mandate to actually “protect” the environment.
In fact, as has been reported here, the Koch-owned Congress has been deregulating the EPA while the mainstream media says nothing. Remember how Republicans pushed deregulation in West Virginia even though their deregulation was responsible for the West Virginia chemical spill?
They’re mad at the EPA. You see, though the EPA did not create the pollution, its workers accidentally destroyed the dam holding the contaminated water back. This was not even the first leak at the site. Westworld tells us there were toxic releases in both 1973 and 1978.
Apparently, because as The Denver Post related the leak “happened as the Environmental Protection Agency was investigating the contaminated mine,” it can only be, as John Boehner characterized it yesterday in a press release, “the EPA’s toxic spill.”
This is the full text of the press release, a toxic level of dishonesty, hypocrisy, and steadfast refusal to accept personal responsibility:
WASHINGTON, DC – Following the EPA’s toxic spill into the Animas River, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) today called on the Obama administration to step up its efforts to protect the people in the affected states:
“This EPA spill is very serious, as is the EPA’s slow response. The Obama administration must do everything in its power to protect the lives and livelihoods of the people in the affected states. As part of this effort, the Secretary of the Interior must address tribal concerns fairly and transparently. 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. Now that his EPA has accepted full responsibility, President Obama should demand full accountability for what happened here.”
This issue of tribal concerns is out of place coming from a Congress that just sold Sacred Apache land it had no right to sell to a foreign mining company to turn it into a big toxic pit in the ground.
The Denver Post reports that,
Like other Colorado politicians, Hickenlooper said he was angered by the EPA’s response to the spill at the Gold King Mine near Silverton on Aug. 5, but said he felt hopeful after receiving data Monday showing the Animas’ metal and acidity levels were returning to normal.
The EPA failed to issue notification to residents of the spill for more than 24 hours. An EPA press release of August 8 states that “The initial EPA team arrived on-site late in the evening on August 6 and immediately on August 7 began to assisting the state.”
At the time the leak occurred, the EPA says it was at the mine in order to:
- assess the on-going water releases from the mine,
- treat mine water, and
- assess the feasibility of further mine remediation.
However, this is not just about the EPA; if you look at the context – the important bit that is usually missing – you find that the EPA has long been concerned about the mine – and other mines in the area – but faced resistance not only from the mining industry, but residents.
Westworld offers us that context:
The environmental challenges and intrigues around the toxic runoff dribbling over years into Cement Creek (an Animas tributary) was the subject of a lengthy feature in Westword in 2005, “What Lies Beneath.” That story explains what happened when entrepreneur and mining buff Todd Hennis tried to reopen the Mogul gold mine — and found it discharging 165 gallons a minute of metals-laced water, which he suspected came from the Sunnyside mine pool.
Hennis eventually reached an agreement with Sunnyside, by which its owners would take over and seal off the Mogul. Hennis’s San Juan Corporation has since taken over ownership of the Gold King — and, as noted in this Denver Post story, he believes that the toxic runoff at that mine can be traced back to Sunnyside, too. Officials at Kinross, Sunnyside’s parent company, have denied any connection between their sealed-off operation and the pollutants now coursing through the Animas.
As you can see, things are a bit more complex than Boehner’s spew would allow. Somehow, the EPA is responsible, but mining companies that actually create the toxic waste are not. Interesting world the Republicans inhabit. It’s a shame it’s not our world.
Despite this wealth of context, according to the conservative Washington Times, “Democrats, green activists scrambling to provide cover for EPA in Gold King Mine spill.” It would be more accurate to say Republicans scrambled to scapegoat the EPA in order to shift blame from their deregulation efforts.
The Washington Times objected to these fact-based tweets:
“Blaming the EPA for #AnimasRiver spill is like blaming a doctor for the disease,” Conservation Colorado said in a Wednesday tweet.
Said Colorado state Rep. Joe Salazar, a Democrat, on Twitter: “Focus of #AnimasRiver contamination should be on mining companies and their mining practices, not EPA, yes?”
The Sierra Club Rocky Mountain chapter posted a link to an article titled “9 things you need to know about the Animas River spill.” The list includes “The EPA messed up, but they’re not the root cause” and “This isn’t the first time this has happened, nor is it the worst.”
These tweets are, in fact, spot-on. I wonder if The Washington Times objects to this fact-based tweet from the Associated Press, as well:
Tens of thousands of mines filled with toxic water lie under the West: http://t.co/lNMb8krwHZ
— The Associated Press (@AP) August 9, 2015
CNN asked in a tweet, “is the @EPA response adequate” when the better question would be, “is the response of the Koch-owned Congress adequate?” The answer is a resounding no.
In fact, as The Durango Herald points out, “Mine waste in the Animas is not unheard of. For more than a century, contaminants have seeped into creeks around Silverton and downstream in the Animas River…Even before Wednesday’s incident, Gold King Mine has been the biggest metal discharger from Silverton mines. It had been releasing about 200 gallons a minute.”
Lauren Pagel writes in a CNN op-ed that “Earthworks estimates that there are over 500,000 abandoned and inactive hardrock mines strewn across the country, with a hefty price tag attached to their clean up — $50 billion, according to an EPA estimate.”
Unfortunately, in the 25 years since Earthworks first published our report on the legacy of abandoned mines, not much has changed. The reason for the lack of action is the antiquated law, 143 years old and counting, that still governs hardrock mining on public lands throughout the West.
Who writes laws? Legislatures. Not the EPA. If you let an 1872 law determine safety, you have to expect these types of disasters, and as Pagel says, this won’t be the last.
Photo: Twitter, via KKTV 11