The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidentally spilled a million gallons of mine waste into Colorado’s Animas River yesterday. The river’s befouled waters turned a bright yellow, their acidity increasing by 100-fold, as officials warned of risks to fish and cautioned that the contaminated sludge could irritate human skin.
“The water is a nasty color yellow, sort of putrid-looking,” a volunteer with the La Plata County search and rescue team tells National Review by phone. Because the county draws some of its water from the Animas, the city has imposed water rationing, he said. And, he explained, the spill will also have an effect on the county’s tourism industry, which relies heavily on rafting, kayaking, and fishing in the river. “The sheriff decided that because we don’t know what’s in the water, he ordered no one can go in the water,” he said.
The incident occurred as the EPA was doing remediation work at the Gold King Mine, an abandoned site north of Silverton that operated between 1890 and 1920, said Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, noting the mine is not under the organization’s control.
Sanderson called the spill “the most significant event” he had seen in his 20-year career. “It’s bad. There’s no question about it. . . . Now comes the matter of trying to fix it. This one, the EPA will undoubtedly perform an investigation and will have some explaining to do,” he said.
When private companies cause such damage, the EPA has the power to bring criminal charges. “In Fiscal Year 2013, EPA’s criminal cases assessed more than $1.5 billion in criminal fines and restitution, and more than $3 billion in court-ordered environmental projects to benefit communities, the largest amounts ever for a single year,” an agency spokesman said last year.
Matt Robbins, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, says the agency is working with the EPA to monitor the effects of the newly contaminated water on fish. He said a significant amount of water has been tainted, and they’re still unsure what the consequences will be.
The EPA, which had not responded to a request for comment at press time, is already drawing criticism for the mistake.
“First, isn’t the point of EPA to protect the environment?” says Daniel Simmons, director of regulatory affairs for the Institute for Energy Research. He adds that it’s significant that a government agency, as opposed to a private company, was responsible for the spill.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and the Blankley Fellow at the Steamboat Institute.