State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

, ,

EPA Spilled, but Didn’t Dump, the Toxics That Ended up in Colorado’s River

Last week, while inspecting leaks from a long-abandoned Colorado gold mine, EPA and its contractors accidentally breached the wall of an old mine tunnel, releasing an orange-colored toxic waste soup that flowed first into Cement Creek and then into the Animas River. On August 11th, the Associated Press reported that:

“The head of the Environmental Protection Agency said… her department takes full responsibility for spilling 3 million gallons of mining waste that turned a southwest Colorado river an unnatural shade of orange, adding it “pains me to no end.”… State and local officials in the areas affected by the spill have characterized EPA’s initial response as too slow and too small. It took about 24 hours to first notify some downstream communities of the accident and the agency originally underestimated the volume of the spill.”

Senator James Inhofe, Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, put down his climate change-denying snowball long enough to make sure that EPA knew it would be held accountable for the mistake. Sadly, EPA made a bad target for his wrath, since EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy had already accepted responsibility and was moving quickly to prevent similar accidents in the future.

The problem is that there are thousands of these abandoned mines throughout the west and many of them are filled with the toxic residue of the mining process. According to an Associated Press report on August 9th:

“Experts estimate there are 55,000 such abandoned mines from Colorado to Idaho to California, and federal and state authorities have struggled to clean them for decades. The federal government says 40 percent of the headwaters of Western waterways have been contaminated from mine runoff.”

Most of the mines have been abandoned for many years. The mine that leaked toxics last week has not been active since 1923. Our past practice of ignoring the environmental impact of our economic activities continues to come back to haunt us—and the process of dealing with this poisonous legacy is far from over. The toxic waste cleanup Superfund program was enacted in 1980 following a study that estimated there were between 30,000 and 50,000 abandoned toxic waste sites in the United States. And that estimate did not include the 55,000 abandoned mines mentioned above.

Throughout the 20th century, we stored and dumped toxic materials wherever it was cheap to stash them. In some cases, such as mines, we simply closed them, walked away and ignored the toxic mine waste. In 1976 we enacted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to regulate hazardous waste and in 1980 we passed Superfund to clean up the toxics already in the ground. Between the private sector, the military and the rest of the government, we have already spent nearly half a trillion dollars over the past thirty years to clean up the old mess, and the work will continue for generations. While EPA should have been more careful in its work in Colorado, managing and cleaning up this toxic mess will inevitably cause additional surprises. Even if we do nothing, we can expect that natural processes will cause other old mine waste sites to leak and contaminate valuable environmental resources. It may be convenient to blame all this on EPA, but it is unfair to do so.

We need to develop the organizational capacity and technology required to investigate and remediate the toxic residue of our economic development. This will take resources. EPA in its current state does not inspire the confidence we need to invest resources in them to clean up this mess. Nevertheless, I see no practical alternative to our national environmental regulatory agency. This is a national problem requiring a national solution. Sadly, given Senator Inhofe’s power and his intense mistrust of EPA, there is no chance that additional resources will be invested in EPA to address toxic cleanup.

Unlike the climate issue that Inhofe famously asserts does not exist, yellow and poisoned rivers are a bit harder to wish away. Blaming the problem on EPA’s competence is more posturing than policy. First, EPA did not dump the toxic wastes; they were simply trying to prevent them from being released into the environment. If we want them to do a better job, they must be given the resources and the authority to do a better job. If the argument is that they should do a better job with the resources they have, then at a minimum, Congress should commission a non-partisan, expert management analysis to see if it is really possible to “do more with less” in this instance.

My guess is that they will discover what is obvious: that EPA’s mission is expanding while its resources are shrinking. EPA‘s staff size peaked in Fiscal Year 1999 at 18,110. By fiscal 2014 it had shrunk to 15,408. Its budget in fiscal year 2015 was about $8.14 billion; a decline from $8.2 billion the year before, and these are actual (not inflation-corrected) dollars. Meanwhile, the complexity, size and toxicity of our economy is growing. While I am not arguing for throwing money at the problem, the Tea Party strategy of “starving the government beast” has not enhanced the competence of that “beast”. I have some sympathy for the view that the federal government has become a huge, unmanageable, bureaucratic nightmare. I find city and local governments more focused, task-oriented and better managed than the feds. But the toxics of concern here may be located in very small jurisdictions that are unlikely to possess the expertise needed to identify them and clean them up. Moreover, the migration of toxics does not end at the borderlines of our towns or states. All of this argues for a federal program, perhaps one that requires a partnership between federal and state governments. I see little hope of progress, however, without additional resources.

The central argument for sustainability management is that we do not preserve the environment because we love nature (although we might), but because we need it. Poisoned rivers are poor sources of drinking water. Here in America we continue our decades-long effort to clean up the legacy of our toxic past. While I wish we’d stopped generating this form of pollution, it is important to note that we have not yet ended some of the practices that got us into this mess. According to the National Wildlife Federation:

“The hard rock mining industry is the single largest source of toxic waste and one of the most destructive industries in the country. Today’s industrial-strength mining involves the blasting, excavating, and crushing of many thousands of acres of land and the use of huge quantities of toxic chemicals such as cyanide and sulfuric acid. The mines that produce our gold, silver, copper, and uranium are notorious for polluting adjacent streams, lakes, and groundwater with toxic by-products.”

Moreover, outside the United States, in the developing world, we see the pattern being repeated. China, India, Latin America and Africa can provide countless examples of the same sloppy and mismanaged industrial practices that we practically invented here.

There is no escaping these costs. It is truly a case of “pay me now” or “pay me later.” The short-term, expedient result of ignoring environmental impacts may be greater immediate profit for some, but the long-term impact is higher costs and lower profit, and many of those higher costs must be borne by all of us. Many of the companies that made the mess will be long gone before many of the bills come due. Even when the impact of toxic pollution is immediate, some of the costs to society are hidden in our rising health care bills.

In the bad old days, some used to say that the solution to pollution is dilution. Given time, water and space, pollution will dissolve. Unfortunately, some of the chemicals we’ve unleashed are more persistent and dangerous than we thought. The answer is not to close down factories or end the use of these chemicals, but to more carefully manage their mining, use and disposal. Mining processes must be more closely regulated.

Finally, a national effort to identify, manage and possibly clean up mining waste is needed. EPA has some authority under Superfund (CERCLA), but a decade and a half ago opted for primarily a partnership approach through EPA’s National Hardrock Mining Framework. Moreover, as Julie Turkewitz reports in yesterday’s New York Times, the abandoned mine issue is the subject of local controversy in Colorado:

“Some have argued that the mines should become a Superfund site… Others, fearful of the stigma that sometimes comes with Superfund status and leery of federal involvement in local issues, are opposed. The fault line in the debate often falls between newer arrivals, who tend to favor E.P.A. involvement, and longtime residents, who typically oppose it.”

EPA’s credibility was not helped by the mistakes they made last week, but the local approach is obviously insufficient. The old strategy of letting sleeping dogs lie won’t work because this mine waste is not going to lie still.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments