EPA’s disaster in Colorado is also a warning


There has been a terrible — and completely unexpected — environmental catastrophe in Colorado. Work crews for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, undertaking a long-delayed project to deal with the hazard of wastewater from abandoned mines in and around the city of Durango, saw the accidental collapse of a barrier and a torrent of highly polluted water flowing into local rivers. The toxic waters from inside the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, have already turned the Animas River a sickening yellow, and the polluted torrent is still flowing.

Here’s the latest from the accident zone:

The agency is treating the toxic water as it pours out, said David Ostrander, a regional emergency response director for the E.P.A.

Colorado, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation have declared states of emergency. And the Colorado governor, John W. Hickenlooper, visited the contaminated river on Tuesday, speaking to residents in Durango who have been barred from using the Animas River because of the spill.

“We take this is as a catalyst,” Mr. Hickenlooper said, adding that there are thousands of abandoned mines in the West. “I think our goal here is to really focus on what we can do to make sure that those mines where we know we have a serious problem — how can we accelerate the remediation and make sure that something like this never happens again?”

The governor of Colorado says this today. But the truth of the matter is that his state has looked the other way on mining wastes while the problem built up for many, many years. Local businesses and politicians were afraid that too much regulation and too many pollution controls would kill jobs. Sound familiar? The Washington Post carried a good history of the region’s tortured history with fossil fuel extraction:

In mineral-rich mountains like the site of the Gold King mine, this process can happen even before prospectors start digging in. Cement Creek, the waterway that was first flooded with sludge last week, had been declared undrinkable in 1876, before mining in the area became widespread, according to the Denver Post. But drilling into the mountain sped things up quite a bit.

Ginny Brannon, director of the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety, told the Denver Post that until 1977, Colorado had few laws requiring mining companies to deal with the wastewater they created.

“Folks could go out and do what they want and walk away from the sites, and this is one of them,” she said.

The Gold King mine hasn’t been operational since 1923, but several other sites in the same network of mines remained open for decades after. For more than 100 years, the mines were the lifeblood of the surrounding community. They provided the bulk of the jobs and one-third of the county’s annual tax revenue, according to the Durango Herald.

Even two major disasters in the 1970s — a breach in a “tailing pond” (the basins that store contaminated water for processing) that sent tons of wastewater into the local watershed and a 1978 lake collapse that flooded the mine with water and a million tons of mud — didn’t dampen support for the operation.

Here’s the important thing to know. This kind of attitude toward mining — or oil-and-gas drilling, or any other type of fossil fuel extraction — is hardly unique. Indeed, it’s exactly what I saw in my early days of bringing radiation dumping cases against Big Oil companies in Mississippi and elsewhere around the South. In out-of-the-way rural communities like Brookhaven, Miss., or Martha, Ky., the major oil giants like Chevron or Ashland Oil stored decades worth of oil waste in large unlined pits, allowed toxic or radioactive pollution to leech into nearby streams, and then sold off the dirty assets to soon-to-be-bankrupt smaller companies, or simply left town all together. And no one was left to clean up the mess. In Colorado, in fact, the state is also littered with abandoned uranium mines.

This cycle is what I fear is being repeated today with fracking. There is still the same gold rush mentality, the same shoddy practices of dumping wastes and polluting streams, the same lack of concern for the host communities. It’s not hard to imagine that in a couple of decades, the localities that are at the heart of the fracking boom, from Pennsylvania to North Dakota to Oklahoma, will be dealing with the same kind of pollution hangovers, and again the energy companies will be long gone. That is the cycle of fossil fuels. As Colorado shows, we need to break the cycle.

Here’s the latest on the Colorado mine waste spill from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/12/us/epa-treating-toxic-water-from-abandoned-colorado-mine-after-accident.html?ref=earth&_r=0

Read more about the history of mining in and around Durango from the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/08/10/what-the-epa-was-doing-when-it-sent-yellow-sludge-spilling-into-a-colorado-creek/

I’ve been fighting pollution by Big Oil for more than a quarter-century. Read all about it in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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