Wall Street Journal – Mine Busters at the EPA

Who you gonna call when the green police unleash a toxic river?

 

Yellow waste water that had been held behind a barrier near the abandoned Gold King Mine is seen in the Animas River in Durango, Colorado on August 8.ENLARGE

Yellow waste water that had been held behind a barrier near the abandoned Gold King Mine is seen in the Animas River in Durango, Colorado on August 8. PHOTO: COLORADO PARKS AND WILDLIFE DEPARTMENT/REUTERS

‘Ghostbusters” has been playing again on cable, so we are reminded that the villain of that movie classic was a bully from the Environmental Protection Agency. He broke the ghost-containment grid and all hell broke loose. So who you gonna call today when the E-men dump three million gallons of toxic slurry down the rivers of the West?

Last week an EPA hazmat team hoped to inspect an abandoned Gold Rush-era mine near Durango, Colorado, and the backhoe digging out the collapsed cave entrance breached a retaining wall. The blowout spilled the contaminated sludge that had accumulated for nearly a century in the mine’s tunnels into a creek that is a tributary of the Animas River, flowing at a rate of 740 gallons a minute.

The plume of lead, arsenic, mercury, copper, cadmium and other heavy metals turned the water a memorable shade of yellow-orange chrome. The sludge is so acidic that it stings upon touch. Colorado, New Mexico and the Navajo Indian reservation have declared states of emergency as the contamination empties into Lake Powell in Utah and the San Juan River in New Mexico.

Opinion Journal Video

Editorial Board Member Joe Rago on who pays for the regulatory agency’s three million gallon spill of heavy metals into a tributary of the Animas River. Photo credit: Associated Press.

The ecological ramifications are uncertain, though the San Juan is designated as “critical habitat” for the Colorado Pike Minnow and Razorback Sucker fish. The regional economy that depends on recreational tourism like rafting, kayaking and fly fishing has been damaged. Drinking water is potable only because utilities closed their intake gates, but pollution in the water table has deprived farmers and rural residents of a source for wells, livestock and crop irrigation.

For 24 hours the EPA failed to warn state and local officials, who learned about the fiasco when they saw their river become yellow curry. The EPA’s initial estimate of the leakage was exposed by the U.S. Geologic Service as three times below the real rate. The agency hasn’t explained the cause of the accident.

Yet the demands for reparations and the media outrage are notably muted. PresidentObama hasn’t budged from his vacation golf rounds. Imagine how the EPA and the green lobby would be reacting if this spill had been committed by a private company. BP could have used this political forbearance after it failed to cork a busted oil well a mile below the sea after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Naturally, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, known as the Superfund law, gives EPA clean-up crews immunity from the trial bar when they are negligent. Yet the Durango blowout was entirely avoidable.

In an Aug. 8 “incident report,” the EPA notes that “the intent of the investigation was to create access to the mine, assess on-going water releases from the mine to treat mine water, and assess the feasibility of further mine remediation.” In other words, the mine was plugged, and the EPA was excavating in search of some notional make-work problem to solve. Where were Bill Murray and Harold Ramis when we needed them?

Low levels of mining waste seep from thousands of used-up 19th-century projects beneath the Western states, but the counties around Durango have resisted declaration as Superfund sites. Perhaps they recall the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) saga in New York, where the EPA forced General Electric to dredge the Hudson River. The operation increased PCB pollution that was long deposited in sediment and had been harmless.

The world is a resilient place—the Gulf Coast has rebounded well—and Colorado will recover from the EPA’s blunders. The lesson is to leave well enough alone, and that government lives by a double standard.

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