EPA’s gross negligence at Gold King

mapOn August 5, an Environmental Restoration company crew, supervised by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials, used a backhoe to dig away tons of rock and debris that were blocking the entrance portal of Colorado’s Gold King Mine, which had been largely abandoned since 1923. Water had been seeping into the mine and out of its portal for decades, and the officials knew (or should have known) the water was acidic (pH 4.0-4.5), backed up far into the mine, and laced with heavy metals.

But they kept digging – until the greatly weakened dam burst open, unleashing a 3-million-gallon (or more) toxic flood that soon contaminated the Animas and San Juan Rivers, all the way to Lake Powell in Utah. To compound the disaster, the EPA then waited an entire day before notifying downstream mayors, health officials, families, farmers, ranchers, fishermen and kayakers that the water they were drinking, using for crops or livestock or paddling in was contaminated by lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic.

Three million gallons of turmeric-orange poisonous water and sludge is enough to fill a pool the size of a football field (360×160 feet) seven feet deep. Backed up hundreds of feet above the portal into mine adits, stopes, rooms and other passageways that begin at 11,458 feet above sea level, the flash-flooding water had enough power to rip out a road and propel its toxic muck hundreds of miles downstream. (You can review EPA’s incompetence and gross negligence in these project photos and post-disaster images.)

Anyone who follows mining, oil spill, and power plant accidents knows the EPA,the  Obama White House, and Big Green animas2environmentalist rhetoric: There is no safe threshold for chemicals. They are toxic and carcinogenic at parts per billion. The water will be unsafe for years or even decades. Wildlife will die. Corporate polluters are criminals and must pay major fines. We will keep our boots on their necks.

This time the White House was silent, and Democrats and eco-activists rushed to defend EPA and shift the blame to mining and mining companies. EPA officials made statements they would never use if a private company had caused the blowout. EPA had simply “miscalculated” how much water had backed up. It was just trying to stick a pipe into the top of the mine to safely pump liquid out for treatment. We were “very careful.” Contaminants “are flowing too fast to be an immediate health threat.” The river is already “restoring itself,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy insisted.

The evidence strongly suggests that the EPA never studied or calculated anything, had no operations plan vetted and approved by state officials or mining experts, was not trying to install a pipe – and was grossly careless and negligent. Toxic sludge was carried and deposited along hundreds of miles, contaminating water and riverbeds, where it will be stirred up for years during every heavy rainfall and snowmelt.

Mining engineers told me the prudent approach would have been to push or drill a 4-inch pipe through the rubble into the mine, to determine the water pressure, toxicity, and extent of water backup in the mine – and then build a strong cofferdam below the portal – before proceeding. Simply removing the debris was stupid, dangerous and negligent, they said. It will take years now to correct the damage and assess costs.

animas3A week after the great flood, EPA finally built a series of retention ponds to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals. But the August 5 surge and continuing outflow are still contaminating Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico rivers, in arid regions where water is scarce and precious. The Navajo Tribal Unity Authority says meeting EPA standards for clean drinking water could double the tribe’s costs for building a new treatment plant and cost millions more in testing and operating expenses.

The EPA says it will pay for testing, property damage, human injuries, and hauling safe drinking water. But will it pay to truck in safe water for livestock and irrigation, and pay for crops and livestock lost because there is no water in the meantime, and millions in lost incomes for outfitters and hotel operators during what would have been their peak tourist seasons? Exxon paid such costs after the Valdez spill in Alaska; BP did likewise after its Macondo spill in the Gulf of Mexico; so have other companies.

Shouldn’t the EPA do likewise, instead of asserting “sovereign immunity” despite its gross negligence? Shouldn’t it cover these costs out of the millions of dollars it uses for employee bonuses and to pay environmental activists and public relations firms to promote its image and agenda – instead of sticking taxpayers with the tab via special appropriations? Will EPA reimburse state and local governments and private charities for assistance they have already rendered? Will it fire the irresponsible officials, or at least demote and discipline them? Will Environmental Restoration pay its fair share?

Under standards that EPA and environmentalists apply to the private sector, Gold King was a disaster. However, the accident could also GoldKingbe an impetus for reflection and responsible regulatory reform.

Anti-mining pressure groups and factions within EPA will use this accident to press for new layers of mining rules, bonds, payments and liabilities. They are unnecessary – and will only restrict the jobs, expertise and revenues needed to ensure that exploration, mining, reclamation and repair of abandoned (orphan) mines are done properly. Modern mining, processing and pollution prevention methods are vastly superior to those employed even 50 years ago, and do not cause the exaggerated impacts alleged by EarthJustice and others. Moreover, the metals and minerals are essential for the wondrous technologies and living standards, the health, housing, transportation and recreational pursuits, that we enjoy today.

The Gold King blowout was predictable and preventable. The mine was leaking slightly polluted water, but the problem was not serious and was being addressed, and the former mining town of Silverton, CO, had repeatedly asked the EPA not to intervene or make Gold King a Superfund site. Mining engineers and other experts were available, and some had offered their insights and expertise. The EPA ignored them.

The EPA – and all government agencies – should end their We-know-best and We-know-what-we’re-doing attitudes … and seek outside advice from real experts in the trenches. They should also develop careful operating plans, assess worst-case scenarios, and take steps to ensure that the worst doesn’t happen. Sometimes they just need to do nothing, get out of the way, and let the private sector handle problems.

The EPA’s new view that these pollutants are not as toxic as previously claimed – and that nature can and does clean things up – is refreshing, even if self-serving. (My use of “toxic” in this article reflects currently prevailing agency, activist and public health industry attitudes and safety standards.) The agency should also take another look at its thresholds for bio-accumulation of toxics in the tissues of fish and shellfish, up the food chain to eagles or humans that eat the stream and bottom dwellers.

Standards for maximum contaminant levels and maximum safe exposures are often absurdly low, and the concept of “linear no threshold” (that there is no safe exposure or blood level for lead, cadmium, arsenic and other metals) is outdated and wrong, Dr. Edward Calabrese and other experts argue.

Not only are pollution, exposure and blood levels often safe at significantly higher levels than regulations currently allow. Low levels of exposure to radiation and many chemicals can actually provide protection from cancer, disease, and other pollutants. While this concept of hormesis is generally ignored by current regulations, we know that a little alcohol improves heart functions, whereas a lot causes multiple problems; an 80 mg aspirin can prevent strokes, but a bottleful can kill; and many vaccinations inject disease strains that cause a person’s immune system to produce antibodies and prevent the disease.

The Obama EPA is already using WOTUS rules on water and a Clean Power Plan on electricity generation and climate change to control virtually everything we make, grow, and do. Congressional committees, presidential candidates, businesses, and citizens need to get involved, debate these issues, ask tough questions, and demand that appropriate reforms be implemented. Our courts and Congress must not allow another collusive sue-and-settle lawsuit – or a new regime of government controls and mine closures that would drive yet another nail into the coffin of western state and local economies.

Gold King presents a teachable moment. Let’s make sure we learn the correct lessons.

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About the Author: Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for CFACT and author of Cracking Big Green and Eco-Imperialism: Green Power - Black Death.

  • Keith Patton

    As an environmental consultant for nearly 10 years, I can say with good authority that the EPA is the refuge of those who cannot cut it in the more competitive consulting business.

    These are the clowns who would rather “lord it” over those of us who are actually doing the work on the consulting side. So you do not mistake what I am saying environmental consultants work for the BPs, the Exxons to help them stay in compliance and to address accidental spills they might have in accordance with the regulations promulgated by the EPA. A lot of EPA types like to be paper Hitlers and wield power they are gratuitously given by an organization that has been corrupted and politicized.

    In this instance it looks like a contractor supervised directly by the EPA was responsible. In other words you had incompetents overseeing the work of a backhoe crew. I would like to know if a work plan, design drawings and all the other documentation the EPA would require of a consulting firm was put in place for this boondoggle. As stated in the article it was obviously a fly by the seat of your pants operation and those never end well.

    I would like to see major fines and prison time meted out to those involved as it appears to be a willful and negligent act. Not only that, but it will require the expenditure of $millions of TAXPAYER dollars. These EPA pukes act like the money comes out of thin air, and any monies expended come directly from the pockets of the average taxpayer. They should be treated as criminals just as if they robbed a bank.

  • Dudley DoRight.

    The EPA is not entirely at fault.
    Affirmative Action gives people jobs they aren’t qualified to do.

  • truckingal

    Five years after a leaking pipeline carrying tar sands oil for Enbridge seeped some of its contents into the Kalamazoo River, we are still being inundated with dire stories of that company’s failures . . .estimates of the amount leaked has continued to rise to 1.2 million gallons and the costs to Enbridge not only included property owners and homes they were forced to buy out, temporary housing, major excavations and clean-up but the removal of a small dam from a little village downstream that the DNR wanted removed (Michigan DNR policy wants ALL dams removed)-although local residents wanted desperately to keep it.

    The outrageous story told to the townspeople and the media was that removing the dam was necessary so ‘heavy equipment could get into the reservoir basin to dredge out contaminated sediments’. That is outright bull puckey! In reality, these reservoirs don’t dry out enough for YEARS to allow any equipment in them without sinking out of sight and the mitigation costs for restoring the 150-year-old wetlands destroyed when the pond is drained costs millions.The fishery is gone. Enbridge paid-but so did the innocent property owners who had absolutely no control or rights once the EPA and the DNA wielded their arrogant government authority. Meanwhile the little rural village has lost its attractive natural feature, property values along the former lakeshore have plummeted and the heart has been torn from this tiny rural town. All in the name of the EPA and their cohorts in the state Dept of Natural Resources.

    What was lacking in that entire discussion was the solid fact that the best defense against spreading pollution from a spill is dams-and dams are what kept the polluted waters back long enough to keep the spill from reaching Lake Michigan. At least weekly, our local (always liberal) media treats us to yet another story of the terrible consequences of the ‘terrifying’ Enbridge spill. No mention of the fact that nature tends to clean itself in that case . . . and the reports NEVER mention the fact that the entire failure was likely due to the fact that Enbridge pays for the costs of State inspections of the pipelines which are supposed to happen but the state never even bothered to hire the necessary inspectors!

    Now, with the Animas River, we see how government deals with the messes they themselves cause! If people aren’t just as enraged by that fact, they simply aren’t paying attention!

  • Mervyn

    What a pity nobody dares take legal action against the EPA over this debacle. Always quick to condemn and punish minor contaminations by private enterprise, here we see the ultimate act of hypocrisy. The next American president should shut down the EPA for good. Instead of being independent, it has allowed itself to become a tool for politicians and the environmental movement. It’s corrupt.

    • eagle keeper

      Other than being a department of government which seems determined to destroy the environment, what good are they? Can anyone point to a situation where they actually improve the quality of life for anything or anyone? If they were on the grade system from A to F, where exactly would they be??

  • Scottar

    “The mine was leaking slightly polluted water, but the problem was not
    serious and was being addressed, and the former mining town of
    Silverton, CO, had repeatedly asked the EPA not to intervene or make
    Gold King a Superfund site. Mining engineers and other experts were
    available, and some had offered their insights and expertise. The EPA
    ignored them.”

    But that was exactly what the EPA want to do via it’s continuing war on the Oil and Mining Industry.

    http://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2015/08/letter-to-editor-predicted-colorado-epa-spill-one-week-before-catastrophe-so-epa-could-secure-superfund-cash/

    Letter to Editor
    PREDICTED COLORADO EPA SPILL One Week Before Catastrophe=> So
    EPA Could Secure Control of Area (Updated)
    Jim Hoft Aug 12th, 2015

    This letter to editor, posted below, and written by Dave

    Taylor, from Farmington, New Mexico, was published in The Silverton Standard and The Miner local newspaper, authored by a retired geologist, one week before EPA mine spill. The letter detailed verbatim, how EPA officials would foul up the Animas River on purpose in order to secure superfund money. If the Gold King mine was declared a superfund site it would essentially kill future development for the mining industry in the area. The Obama EPA is vehemently opposed to mining and development.

    The EPA Scumbags put a plug at the mines entrance which caused the water from surrounding conduits to backup. They where warned about it but just ignored the warning and allowed the backup. They are trying to pull another fast one on the sheeple just as they are doing with the climate change claims.

    Part of Agenda 21 takeover.