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EPA Disaster: Lessons Learned from Toxic Sludge

Posted by Sara Gutterman

Aug 13, 2015 12:04:54 PM

EPA’s recent reclamation disaster in Colorado shows us why regulation and oversight is so desperately needed.

For the second week in a row, the EPA is making national news. This time, the headlines aren’t touting a progressive policy that will accelerate climate action—rather, they’re exposing an environmentally noxious mistake made by the EPA that will affect lives and livelihoods along the Colorado River Basin.

On Sunday, the EPA made a costly miscalculation at the Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado, discharging an estimated 3 million gallons of contaminated water laden with harmful toxins, causing arsenic quantities in the Animas River soaring to over 300 times normal levels and lead levels over 3,500 times regular amounts.

Ironically, the grievous mistake occurred as EPA workers were in the process of reclaiming the mining site, attempting to clean up the existing leakage of contaminants into the river—estimated at 548 gallons per minute. The agency was looking for the source of the leak, with the hope of staunching it.

Animus River Spill

Nathan Shoutis paddles the discolored Animus river in Durango, Colorado, shortly after an EPA remediation project resulted in the breach of millions of gallons of toxic mining waste. Photograph: Steve Fassbinder via The Guardian

The Animas runs into the Colorado River, which provides water to tens of millions of people in Western states. The toxic stew has now affected downstream users in Colorado and New Mexico.

The spill was so bad that the city of Durango, La Plata County, and the Navajo Nation all declared states of emergency, concerned about drinking water safety, public river access, and water quality for livestock and crops. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, also declared a state of emergency on Monday, enabling him to allocate $500,000 from the state's disaster emergency fund to pay for assessments and the response.

The EPA is now attempting to get the area designated as a national priority SuperFund cleanup site so that they can access federal funding to support a comprehensive cleanup plan.

Critics, including New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, claim that the EPA was “cavalier and irresponsible” in its response, waiting too long to notify downstream communities about the incident. The EPA retorts that it didn’t know the extent of the damage, thinking that it could mitigate the contamination by containing the mustard- colored water in holding ponds near the site.

The EPA is now retaining the ongoing flow in holding ponds and treating the water with lime and sodium hydroxide solution to force sedimentation and filter out the heavy metals. Apparently, toxin levels are dropping—the EPA stated yesterday that the heavy metals in the water have returned to “pre-event” levels. Nonetheless, the effects of exposure to these chemicals to humans, terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, and ecosystems is still unknown. It’s difficult to project the long-term implications of the incident, and cleanup and monitoring plans will certainly need to be developed and executed.

The reclamation disaster is a distressing reminder that human error—made even by the organization that typically responds to environmental disasters rather than causes them—is inevitable.

With 500,000 abandoned mines around the country—many of which are actively leaking toxins into water systems (the federal government estimates that 40% of Western waterways have been contaminated by mine runoff)—it’s naive to think that this is an isolated incident.

The mining industry went unregulated for centuries, with many of the mines developed before our modern system of permitting and regulation, leaving time bombs that are just waiting to explode. “Until the late 1970s, there were no regulations on mining in most of the region, meaning anyone could dig a hole where they liked and search for gold, silver, copper or zinc,” said the Associated Press. “Abandoned mines fill up with groundwater and snowmelt that becomes tainted with acids and heavy metals from mining veins which can trickle into the region’s waterways.”

The EPA and other environmental organizations are attempting to clean up these properties (for example, there is a proactive effort to clean up Colorado’s Front Range mineral belt), but there are decades of work to be done, and no way to predict how many more times this type of disaster may reoccur.

The incident shines a bright light on the very reason why the EPA is in existence, underlining the necessity of oversight, regulation, enforcement, and even punishment, when necessary. It’s paramount that we hold all organizations, regardless of whether they’re in the public or private sector, accountable for their actions. We must all answer to the same call of responsibility and stewardship if we are to maintain the health of our planet.

How do you think we can effectively manage these types of reclamation disasters in the future? Write to me at sara.gutterman@greenbuildermedia.com or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit Green Builder Media at www.greenbuildermedia.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter for regular updates and breaking news.

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