EPA and the Gold King Mine – Make the Polluter Pay

In August 2015, iron-colored water was released into the Animas River while EPA staff and contractors were initiating investigation into clean up of  the Gold King Mine (north of Durango, Colorado). But – contrary to what you’ve read in the news – this release was not an “EPA-created disaster.” There was no long term damage to the ecosystem as a result of EPA’s actions.  The real “disaster” was the steady accumulation of toxic metals in the Animas River system caused by decades of uncontrolled releases from legacy mines.

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Cement Creek, several miles downstream from the Gold King Mine complex. The rocks are stained rusty-gold by iron-contaminated water released from the mine over decades. (Picture from Salt Lake Tribune)
  • Color does not equal pollution — The water released from the Gold King Mine was high in dissolved oxidized iron, coloring the water rusty-gold. This coloring provided dramatic photos – but color does not equal pollution load. The worst pollution is invisible.  If we could color the pollution present in our waters, we would see technicolor rivers almost everywhere.  The Gold King release was spectacularly colored because of geochemistry.
  • Not one fish died as a result of the Gold King spill  — Gold King and its workings release toxic metals  (copper, lead, and zinc) into the Animas River every week at a rate equal to the entire load from the August, 2015 blowout event. This legacy mining has severely impacted the Animas River’s ability to support aquatic life. The Gold King release did not cause long term damage to the Animas River – because that damage had already been done by decades of seepage from legacy mining. In addition, no one lost a home or drinking water supply, and no one was threatened with any physical harm as a result of this release.
  • Make the polluter pay — Justice demands that those who make a mess pay for the mess.  Those who sought riches from mining left behind never-ending acid-mine drainage conditions like those at Gold King.  Some political leaders, including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, are attempting to make the EPA the bad guy.  But from the standpoint of “who pays” EPA is us, once removed.  The public didn’t mine the gold, and neither did EPA – a series of mining companies did. EPA’s only involvement was to begin an attempt at cleaning up the mess others left behind. 
  • Claims against EPA should match the extent of damage caused by EPA’s acts — The Department of Justice asked the federal court to deny many claims against EPA, arguing that EPA’s only connection to the Gold King site was its response to contamination created by others.  This makes sense.  Charging EPA for the cleanup of the entire Gold King mine complex is like blaming a person who attempts to put out his neighbor’s fire with causing the fire in the first place. 
  • History of mining liabilities — It is long overdue for the mining industry to accept responsibility for cleaning up its messes.  The cost of cleaning up mining pollution in the U.S. exceeds $21 billion — about the same as the cost to build the Mexican border wall.  If Mexico should pay for the wall, surely the mining industry, not American taxpayers must pay this bill? National challenge of leaking mines dwarfs Colorado spill 
  • Public agencies should not be blamed for damage caused by extractive industries — Politicians must cease blaming public agencies for the environmental damage done by mining – and go back to making the polluter pay.  The Superfund was initially funded by a tax on pollution-causing industries. Congress stopped this tax in 2001, and  taxpayers have been paying the lion’s share of cleanup costs ever since. 

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SOLUTIONS:

  1. Congress should reauthorize taxes on the mining and chemical industry to pay for legacy mine clean-up.  Congress must not use tax payer money – which is apparently what Sen. Gardner and Administrator Pruitt intend by making EPA, meaning us taxpayers, pay for the Gold King mine cleanup.
  2. Neither Congress nor EPA should pay millions in alleged long-termed damages to New Mexico or Navajo interests: no fish died, no water supply was tainted, and crops were not damaged.   The 2015 spill did not make water quality worse than on-going mine discharge conditions. Claims now total nearly 1/2 billion dollars – far more than would be requested if a “Good Samaritan’” (rather than a deep pocket U.S. agency) had attempted to stabilize a leaking mine.  “Making EPA pay” looks suspiciously like a means to further reduce EPA’s budget by politicians intent on dismantling the agency.
  3. Adequate bonding for mine cleanup, upfront, is essential.  Bonding for acid-generating mines in the future will require the mining industry to pay for water treatment in perpetuity – for once a gold mine exposes acid-generating minerals, this acidity releases toxic metals forever unless the mines are properly sealed. States regulate mines – not EPA – and States should increase bonding requirements.
  4. The Clean Water Act should be amended to allow private sector organizations and businesses to participate in mine site cleanup.  Currently, such non-governmental cleanups risk financial liability for their Good Samaritan actions.  Good Samaritan legislation has been languishing in Congress for more than  decade – it’s past time to provide this liability protection. A grant program to support non-governmental cleanup efforts would be immensely helpful in addressing legacy pollution in Western watersheds.
  5. Communities must have a role, but they should not be allowed to exercise a veto over cleanups. Prior to the spill, elected officials from local communities (supported Governor Hickenlooper) blocked EPA’s attempts to designate the Gold King mining district as a Superfund site.  Superfund designation is required before EPA can spend funds on long term remediation of a site.  Had Gold King been listed as a Superfund site in the 1990’s (as EPA originally proposed),  EPA could have initiated clean up before the mine reached its bursting point. (Superfund designation did not occur until 2016.) 

Want to learn more about legacy mining? Cleaning up after hardrock mining – and the spectre of Gold King

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