It’s wrong to blame the EPA for the Gold King spill

Without the private sector, neither the mine nor its toxic legacy would exist.

 

The gush of toxic waste that rushed out of the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, in 2015 turned the Animas River a memorable sickly yellow. It also unleashed a thick cloud of confusion in many people, revealing how deeply an anti-government narrative has seeped into our public discourse.

This is how New Mexico Republican Gov. Susana Martinez explained what happened: “I can guarantee you that if a private company had caused this massive environmental disaster, the (Environmental Protection Agency) would have gone all out to hold them accountable. But when the federal government dumps millions of gallons of toxic sludge into our rivers, they shirk their responsibility and leave it up to the states to mop up the mess they created.”

Is the “they” that created this pollution really the federal government? Her misunderstanding has been echoed in various forms by other regional politicians and reporters. Yet if we look at the Gold King Mine disaster critically, the popular narrative that the EPA is responsible dissolves. It was the private sector that created the Gold King Mine, and far from being villains, it is the EPA that has been trying to clean up this ongoing, decades-in-the-making disaster.

On the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, following the Animas river, polluted by a massive spill less than 24 hours before.
Mor/Flickr user

The San Juan Mountains near Durango, Colorado, were one of the most productive mining areas in the United States between 1860 and 1986. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold, silver and lead were pulled from hundreds of mines on once-public lands that became privatized by miners under the Mining Law of 1872. Fortunes were made, but as soon as the market changed or ore seams ran out, the mine owners ran out, too, leaving an unmitigated mess of hundreds of abandoned mines across the mountains. 

These abandoned mines have been leaking toxic acid mineral waste into the streams of the Animas and San Juan rivers ever since. Near Silverton, 48 of 300 old mines leak toxic minerals dissolved in sulfuric acid into the Animas River every day. Federal and state officials estimate that about 1,500 gallons of acid mine drainage a day flow into the river from these Silverton-area mines.

Gold King had been leaking 200 gallons of waste a minute before the EPA crew began digging to investigate the source.

“These mines are draining as we speak,” Bruce Stover, director of Colorado’s Abandoned Mines Reclamation Program told the Denver Post in 2015. “We had a disaster last week — a surging amount of water coming out. That same amount of water is coming out every six months and harming the Animas (River).” 

These mines belong to small and large companies alike, yet few if any mine owners (assuming they can be found) are willing to spend the millions needed to treat the toxic waste that will flow out of their mines forever and kill fish. Instead, the federal taxpayer pays for cleaning up this private-sector mess because the toxic waste is regulated under the Clean Water Act, a federal law that seeks to keep our rivers clean.

The Clean Water Act is enforced by the EPA, which many conservatives have vowed to abolish. In the San Juan Mountains, the EPA and its contractors have been confronting the worst of the pollution sources. including the Gold King Mine, since the mine owners will not do the cleanup themselves. 

It’s hard to get anyone to admit to owning the Gold King, but apparently it is the property of a California company called San Juan Mining, which blames the neighboring, connected Sunnyside Mine, owned by an international conglomerate, for the toxic waste that spilled in 2015. Accidents happen, and an EPA contractor breached a leaking barrier holding back millions of gallons of acid mine waste in the Gold King. Yet even if that hadn’t happened, experts say, the barrier probably would have failed on its own with the same result — poisoned rivers and ruined irrigation waters. 

In June 2016, the Upper Animas River Basin was added to the federal Superfund list after local and Colorado state officials gave their approval. The EPA will continue to try to compel the mine owners to clean up their pollution, but meanwhile, the government will use federal funds to start the job. The Trump administration, however, might well block any remedial action.

Rather than blaming the EPA for the mine spill as Gov. Martinez has chosen to do, we could be thanking the agency for taking on the expensive and hazardous task of cleaning up a mess, on behalf of all Americans, that the private sector should have cleaned up decades ago.

 

Tom Ribe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes about public lands from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.