The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is tasked with protecting us from those that would seek to pollute our vast network of waterways. But who protects us when it’s the EPA’s fault? As reported by the NY Times yesterday, an EPA crew caused an alphabetic soup of toxic elements to flow into the Animas River, turning the pristine waters into a mustard-yellow sludge. The agency, which was “investigating a worsening acid discharge from Gold King and three other mines,” triggered the toxic torrent from a mixture of poor judgment, little planning, and the use of a heavy digging machine.
EPA’s on-site coordinator, Hays Griswold, said it all started when they were exploring where they could put in a pipe that could drain the rising waters inside the mine. “We had found the hard rock I wanted to find overhead,” Griswold told the Denver Post. “All of a sudden, there was a little spurt from the top.” The spurt quickly turned into a deluge when it blew through the loose dirt that “acted as a barrier between the collapsing mine portal and waterways.” The bright orange wave cascaded down into Cement Creek, which empties into the Animas River (an early tributary of the Colorado River).
The yellow-orange plume, with an initial discharge of 3 million gallons, “contains arsenic, lead, cadmium, aluminum and copper — among other potentially toxic heavy metals.” After the EPA first tried to downplay the incident when the man-made disaster occurred last Wednesday, the agency has now acknowledged its initial response to the breech was “inappropriate” and the incident “tragic.” The EPA has caused what many are calling one of the nation’s greatest environmental disasters.
The tragedy unfolded when an EPA crew was tasked with collecting and containing wastewater in the Gold King mine in Durango, Colorado. That’s because old mines “leak heavy metals into headwaters — an issue around Colorado and the western United States.” According to the Denver Post, “Durango identifies itself as the ‘River City,’ and residents’ lives revolve around fishing, swimming, tubing and entertaining tourists along the Animas River.”
The NY Times is also reporting that testing by the EPA found that the “wastewater spill caused levels of arsenic, lead and other metals to spike in the Animas River.” The agency had been so slow to recognize that they had created the preventable disaster that many residents wondered who was watching, and holding accountable, the EPA.
State Sen. Ellen Roberts, who witnessed the events unfold for six hours on Thursday as the yellow-orange plume moved downriver, said this was “an ‘EPA-caused Love Canal’ where the EPA worsened the harm by not warning locals until it was too late and then leaving the community “disarmed” in responding.”
The mustard-yellow sludge is expected to continue traveling down the Colorado river, into New Mexico, and through Utah. Eventually all 3 million gallons will reach Lake Powell. Colorado has declared a state of emergency, which will allow federal money to be used in the clean-up efforts. Waste water is still trickling from the long-since abandoned Gold King mine, and clean-up has only just begun.