WOTUS: Whom do you trust with your water after EPA’s toxic spill?

Our Clean Water Rule protects the streams and wetlands that feed our rivers, lakes, bays, and coastal waters. These waters are critical for agriculture, healthy communities, our economy, and our way of life.”

Environmental Protection Agency www.epa.gov/cleanwaterrule

This is so insanely tragic and absolutely crazy. It feels like something out of a sci-fi novel or movie.”  — A resident of Durango, Colorado commenting on the polluted Animas River

The Washington Times, August 11, 2015

Barely two months after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rolled out its new “Clean Water Rule,” said to protect America’s waterways from the scourge of manmade pollutants, the agency finds itself directly responsible for sending an estimated 3 million gallons of toxic sludge into a major southwestern river system.

A botched effort by an EPA contractor to plug the long-abandoned Gold King mine near Durango, Colo. triggered a breach that let out wastewater that had built up inside over the decades. In the aftermath of the Aug. 5 accident, a bright orange plume, laden with heavy metals, moved into Cement Creek and down the Animas River and connected with the San Juan River in New Mexico before heading to Utah and Lake Powell.

The extent of the ecological damage is unknown. EPA claims that the amount of heavy metals, predominantly cadmium and lead, in the Animas River has returned to pre-spill levels. But there is considerable reason to doubt EPA’s claims. Indeed, the agency’s behavior from the moment of the breach to the present has done nothing to inspire confidence in its competence, crisis management or truthfulness.

Disaster Foreseen

In a prescient July 30 letter to the editor of the Silverton (Colo.) Standard, Dave Taylor wrote that, “Based on my 47 years as a professional geologists, it appears to me that the EPA is setting your town and the area up for a possible Superfund blitzkrieg…” Taylor added that following the plugging of the mine, “the exfiltrating water will be retained behind the bulkheads, accumulating at a rate of 500 gallons per minute [gpm]. As the water backs up, it will begin filling all connected mine workings and bedrock voids and fractures.” As the water levels inside the mine continue to rise, pressure will rise dramatically, Taylor goes on. “The water will find a way out and exfiltrate uncontrollably through connected abandoned shafts, drifts, raises, factures, and possibly talus on the hillsides. …But make no mistake, within seven to 120 days, all of the 500 gpm flow will return to Cement Creek. Contamination may actually increase due to the disturbance and flushing action within the workings.”

Six day after Taylor’s letter appeared, the disaster he predicted struck the Gold King mine. And what was EPA’s initial reaction to the toxic spill it had caused? Silence. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez says she was not notified of the spill until Aug. 6 at 9:30 a.m., even though the incident had been reported on Aug. 5 at 10:40 a.m. And the information she got came from the Southern Ute Tribe, not EPA, she says.

“This was caused by the EPA and the EPA should demand the same of itself that it would for a private business for such a spill, particularly when it comes to making information available to the public and state and local officials,” Martinez told the Washington Times (Aug. 8).

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy waited seven days before undertaking a tour of the damage her agency had caused. At this writing, Aug. 17, the White House has yet to issue a statement on the spill, and President Obama has not seen fit to interrupt his golfing vacation on Martha’s Vineyard or in any way concern himself with his administration’s fiasco in the Southwest.

“Waters of the United States”

This brings us back to EPA’s recently rebranded initiative to expand its jurisdiction over bodies of water throughout the country. Formerly known as WOTUS for “Waters of the United States,” EPA’s Clean Water Rule will bring bodies of water on millions of acres of private land under the agency’s regulatory thumb. This includes ditches, stock ponds, prairie potholes, and other bodies of water, including wetlands, some of which are only intermittingly wet. If the rule is allowed to go into effect, EPA will be calling the shots on land-use decisions on farms, ranches, orchards, groves, and other privately owned land, including suburban backyards.

EPA has the same institutional knowledge of agriculture that is has of mining, manufacturing, energy production, and the countless other sector it regulates. The agency regulates a world it doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to understand. If there is something to be gained from the misfortune that has befallen the communities and rivers of the Southwest it is that putting more power into the hands of the agency responsible for the calamity of the Gold King mine is pure folly.

EPA was created in 1970 largely in response to the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catching on fire. Forty-five years later, things have come full circle. Now, it is EPA that is polluting a vast river system in the Southwest.

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About the Author: Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.

  • Dano2

    Apologists pounce on the Agency ready to implement the Clean Power Plan by suddenly caring about water pollution, ignore far worse spills of oil into waterways.

    Best,

    D