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When the EPA literally popped the cap holding back toxics filled water at the Gold King Mine above Silverton and Durango Colorado, it really screwed up.
Here’s what we know. The Gold King Mine had been closed and plugged since 1923. Behind that plug were several million gallons of tainted water, laced with toxins and heavy metals that existed in the rocks and naturally leached out over time even before mining started in the area, combined with toxic chemicals used in the mining process. 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 contained in the Gold King Mine, could be dangerous, but only if only if a person is exposed to them particular ways, in sufficient amounts.
Even before mining really took off, Cement Creek, the stream first hit with the sludge released by the 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 mines that had been the prime reason this region of Colorado was settled in the first place and that had been the lifeblood of the towns in the area for more than 100 years, were also the source of ongoing water problems.
By 2015, Cement Creek contained no fish. Still, the water draining from Cement Creek and other nearby streams into the Animas river was not toxic or dangerous to humans – it took the EPA to literally poison the wells. The Animas river was a popular canoeing, 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.
Thanks to the EPA, for now until who knows how long, all this has come to an end.
We also know the EPA had been bucking to declare the entire region a Superfund site for decades. Ever since the last mine in the region closed, Sunnyside, in 1991, the EPA has been trying to force a clean up using the threat of a Superfund designation. Entire towns in the U.S. have had to be abandoned and fenced off once they are declared Superfund sites. Silverton and nearby towns and residents wished to avoid such a fate at all costs. For years, residents of Silverton fought EPA involvement out of fear a Superfund designation would destroy their tourism industry, the only source of income that could replace the vanished mines.
In what seemed a sign of progress, earlier this year, EPA agreed it would not designate the mines a Superfund site, and it would provide $1.5 billion to plug two other area mines, where polluted water was draining. This is where the Gold King problem arose. As the Washington Post reported, “But water has a habit of finding its way downhill, and plugging one mine often means it simply leaks from others, so the agency had to excavate and stabilize the Gold King mine upstream.”
Do we know for sure that water from the mines the EPA plugged was flowing into Gold King? No. Do we know for sure that Gold King’s plug would soon, or indeed ever, collapse absent EPA actions to drain the mine? No.
And here are a few things the EPA didn’t know that engineers think they should have before tackling the problem: How much water was stored behind the plug? What were the water pressures? What toxins at what percentages were in the water?
Rather than doing a little more research and testing at nearby mines containing lower volumes of water, the EPA ham-handedly blundered forward, and by breaking the seal unleashed 3 million gallons of toxic sludge and water into waterways and watersheds that provided sustenance and a living for people in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.
Three million gallons, sounds like a lot, and it is, about 60,000 bath tubs or 4 ½ Olympic sized pools, however, it’s a relatively small volume compared to the water flowing through the affected rivers on a daily basis, and though Lake Powell, the ultimate destination for much of the spill, is only 53 percent full at present due to an extended drought, it still contains 4,247,025,005,449. In short, the toxins that reach Lake Powell’s 4 trillion gallons of water will be so diluted as to not be a concern, and possibly not measurable.
Testing was done immediately after the spill. One of the samples of mercury was nearly 10 times higher than the EPA acceptable levels. Samples of beryllium and cadmium were 33 times higher, and one of the arsenic levels was more than 800 times higher. Having said this, much of the river system is are already back to or near normal conditions. For example, samples tested from nine locations along the San Juan river showing it is back to pre-event conditions.
The problem is, while much of the contaminated sludge will settle into the river bottoms, reducing immediate threats from the toxics, river activities, storms and other events can and will stir it up in the future, leading to episodic spikes in dangerous pollutants.
The 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 tainted water for municipal uses, kayakers and anglers were literally standing or floating in the toxic brew. Some mayors of cities were outraged that they first learned of the danger from news stories, not the EPA itself. Colorado and New Mexico’s governor’s declared states of emergency and local officials and those using private wells have turned off the taps in the affected region. Numerous lawsuits are undoubtedly forthcoming, and the EPA has already established mechanisms for compensating individuals and businesses affected by the closure of the affected areas.
As the EPA itself admits, this has created a long term problem, for which it is responsible. And this all could have been avoided, the question is, did the EPA want the spill to occur. Outrageous you say! Consider this, the EPA has long wanted an excuse to declare Colorado’s mining region a Superfund site. Billions of dollars flow to the agency to remediate Superfund sites. In recent years, the EPA’s budget and staffing has been stagnant or in decline.
The EPA has already gone on record stating this spill proves the need to deal with the more than 50,000 abandoned mine in the area. That’s decades of remediation work, work which may never have gotten funding (especially since the problematic waters are a threat to no one while trapped in the mines), absent the EPA’s spill.
Less than a week before the spill a retired engineer predicted it in a letter published in the Silverton Standard and The Miner. He 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.” He warned, accurately, EPA would underestimate the water pressure build up and the clean up would fail spectacularly flooding the river with toxic waste. He warned citizens and the cities downstream of the Gold King Mine to attempt to protect their water supplies from the predicted toxic flood and said the EPA would use their failure to pushg to build $100 million to $500 million treatment plant in the area, which he believed was the EPA’s real goal all along.
If a private company had caused this disaster, federal and state officials would already be talking criminal investigations, and civil penalties would be filed claiming in billions in damage. Heads would roll, yet, while the EPA may transfer some of the people supervising the operation, its likely few if any of its employees will fired or forced to resign. Indeed if past cases of government malfeasance are any guide, those most intimately tied to the spill may receive raises or promotions, whether to reward them for surreptitiously gaining the EPA’s underlying goal of garnering millions for future mine clean ups, as suggested by Taylor, or keep them quiet concerning such a plan.
If Congress isn’t careful, it could end up rewarding the 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 affected parties, and provide ongoing monitoring of water quality and residents health, rather than granting the EPA additional funds, it should use shift funds from the EPA’s existing budget, cutting or reduce funding for other EPA programs. This would send the message that the EPA will not benefit from either dunderheaded or malicious but self-interested actions it undertakes.
* This is a modified and expanded version of an article the author wrote for The American Spectator.