When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) literally popped the cap holding back toxics-filled water at the Gold King Mine above Silverton and Durango, Colorado, it really messed up.
Here’s what we know: The Gold King Mine had been closed and plugged since 1923. Behind the plug were several million gallons of tainted water laced with toxins and heavy metals. Among the potential toxins in the mine were lead, sulfuric acid, dissolved iron and copper, zinc, beryllium, cadmium, and arsenic. Note I said potential toxins. Any of these chemicals or metals alone, or combined as they were in the waters in the Gold King Mine, could be dangerous, but only if a person were exposed to them in particular ways and in sufficient amounts.
Even before there was mining in the area, Cement Creek—the stream first hit with three million gallons of sludge released by EPA’s snafu at Gold King—had been declared undrinkable as far back as 1876. Nature was poisoning the water even before humans got involved. Mining exacerbated the problem. Tainted water had been seeping out of abandoned or closed mines near Gold King for decades.
The water draining from Cement Creek and other nearby streams into the Animas River was not toxic or dangerous to humans. It took the ham-fisted actions of EPA to literally poison the wells. The Animas River was a popular canoeing and kayaking location; anglers, hikers, and hunters used the area and its resources for food and recreation; farmers used the water for irrigation; adjacent and nearby homeowners used well water for drinking and bathing; and cities and the Navajo Nation used the waters from the Animas and connecting streams and rivers for municipal drinking water.
EPA compounded its gross negligence by failing to inform city and state officials or residents and recreationists on the river for a full 24 hours after the event. That’s 24 hours farmers were irrigating with tainted water, cities were pumping dirty water for municipal uses, and kayakers and anglers were literally standing or floating in the toxic brew. Some mayors of cities first learned of the danger from news reports, not the EPA itself.
EPA admits it has created a long-term problem for which it is responsible. The question is, did EPA actually want the spill to occur?
Outrageous, you say? In recent years, EPA’s budget and staffing has been stagnant or in decline, and the agency has long wanted an excuse to declare Colorado’s mining region a Superfund site. EPA has now gone on the record stating this spill proves the need to treat the more than 50,000 abandoned mines in the area. This would amount to decades of remediation work, which might never have received funding absent EPA’s spill, especially since the problematic waters are a threat to no one while they remain trapped in the mines.
Less than a week before the spill, retired engineer Dave Taylor predicted this very scenario in a letter published in the Silverton Standard & The Miner. Taylor wrote, “Based on my 47 years of experience as a professional geologist, it appears to me that the EPA is setting your town and the area up for a possible Superfund blitzkrieg.”
Taylor warned accurately EPA would underestimate the water pressure behind the plug, which would fail spectacularly once EPA commenced work, flooding the river with toxic waste. He stated EPA would then use the Gold King pollution as an argument to get funding for a $100–$500 million toxic treatment plant to handle water and waste from other mines in the region. Taylor wrote he believed that was EPA’s real goal all along.
If a private company had caused this disaster, federal and state officials would already be talking about criminal investigations, and civil suits would be filed claiming billions in damages. Heads would be rolling. By contrast, although EPA may transfer some of the people who supervised the disastrous operation, it’s likely few, if any, of its employees will be fired or forced to resign.
If past cases of government malfeasance are any guide, those most intimately tied to the spill may receive raises or promotions, either to reward them for surreptitiously accomplishing EPA’s underlying goal of garnering millions for future mine clean-ups, as suggested by Taylor, or to keep them quiet about any such plan.
If Congress isn’t careful, it could end up rewarding EPA’s bad behavior. When it approves, as it likely will, emergency or additional funds to clean up the Gold King Mine spill; compensate all injured parties; and provide ongoing monitoring of water quality and residents’ health; instead of granting EPA additional funds, it should shift funds in EPA’s existing budget and cut completely or reduce funding for other EPA programs.
This would send the message EPA will not benefit from its own blunders or malicious, self-interested actions.