By Nathan Barton
(This article is being written, and published (in slightly different versions) for both Laissez Faire Today and The Price of Liberty by a “friend.”) It is a follow-up to several earlier commentary items, and as I pointed out, we are directly and indirectly involved in the matter, here in Southwestern Colorado.)
It has been about ten days now, since the EPA had a contractor, “cleaning up” the abandoned Gold King Mine in the La Plata Mountains near Silverton, Colorado, break through a cofferdam and release what turned out to be three million gallons of highly polluted water, both acidic and containing a witch’s brew of metals: arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, aluminum, iron, and possibly others. The contaminated, sediment-laden water, looking like orange juice, rushed down Cement Creek and into the Animas River which flows through Silverton and Durango, and on into New Mexico to join the San Juan River and ultimately into the Colorado.
But while this hit the region and the nation with a shock, it was far from unanticipated by certain people. San Juan County, one of the smallest in both land and population in Colorado, and an old mining community with its seat at Silverton, had its Sheriff and Emergency Management Officer trying hard to get EPA and its contractors working on the project to do basic, common-sense actions for months: adequate training, essential emergency planning, and a proper assessment of the risks involved.
The Gold King Mine has been closed for decades, reportedly after the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) hounded its owner out of business. The bond for cleaning up and reclaiming the mine and its surface had been adequate three decades ago, but failure to take action by various government agencies apparently delayed efforts. This same water had been leaking into Cement Creek for decades but at a low, steady rate of about 200 and up to 500 gallons a minute (gpm) (that is about q quarter-million to a million gallons a day), but that was a rate that the Animas River could handle and remain healthy for rafters, tubers, fish and fishermen, and to use to irrigate crops, water livestock, and use for raising fish in nearby ponds. But last year, as part of the “clean-up” and without basic, common-sense coordination with local authorities, the EPA built a barrier that trapped the water inside the earth, and there was “no discharge,” until the dam was intentionally breached to resume work this month.
But it is more than just failure to plan, train, and coordinate. A week before, on 30 July 2015, a letter to the editor was published in the local weekly, the Silverton Standard & The Miner. It was written by a retired geologist detailing precisely how the EPA would mess up the Animas River, and stated that it was to be INTENTIONAL, in order to secure additional Superfund money. That letter to the editor is shown in the image.
“But make no mistake, within seven days, all of the 500 gpm flow will return to Cement Creek. Contamination may actually increase… The ‘grand experiment’ in my opinion will fail. … And guess what [EPA’s] Mr. Hestmark will say then? Gee, “Plan A” didn’t work so I guess we will have to build a treatment plant at a cost to taxpayers of $100 million to $500 million (who knows). Reading between the lines, I believe that has been the EPA’s plan all along.”
A hard accusation, made and documented DAYS before the “accidental release” actually occurred, on Wednesday, the 5th of May. Published in the weekly on the 30th of July, Mr. Taylor had to have written it at least three days earlier, to get it in the paper.
Those of us who know and have worked with (or against) EPA for decades have no reason to disbelieve that this evil agency has once again committed a crime: moral if not legal.
But there is more. The day of the spill, the orange juice flowing down Cement Creek to the town of Silverton and the Animas River was NOT reported by the EPA or its contractor, or the state agencies reportedly on site working with EPA, but rather, by the San Juan County Sheriff on a routine patrol in his highly tourist-oriented community, who sent out the first alert messages warning the people downstream that something nasty was coming their way. Even then, according to sources in San Juan County, EPA refused to cooperate. In fact, it was HOURS before EPA said anything, while local officials of small communities, business men and women, and rural residents scrambled to figure out what was going on. And even once EPA “announced” the release, they greatly understated the impact and the size: claiming only one million gallons at first.
The Sheriff of neighboring (and downstream) La Plata County (seat, the ranching/farming, oil and gas, tourist, skiing, and college town of Durango) was notified and reacted swiftly to tell people to get OUT of the river and stop irrigating crops and providing water to horses and cattle (also important to the local economy). At a bridge a few miles north of Durango, as the slug of contamination turned the clear blue waters of the Animas to a bright orange (spectacular pictures) the pH jumped in minutes from 7.8 to 5.8 in a matter of minutes. I have reports of trout literally jumping out of the water onto dry land to try to escape the acid and the pain.
Hundreds, even thousands of tourists here for the end of the rafting and kayaking season had their vacations ruined, which meant that dozens of motels, hotels, restaurants, bars, and other venues watched their customers vanish for elsewhere. Thousands of people live in houses which have as their only water supply water from the river and its alluvium, and they could no longer drink it. Hot weather means that crops and livestock need water, and suddenly it was not there. Durango itself, a city of about 18,000 PLUS tourists, suddenly lost about a third of its water supply (fortunately it does not depend just on the Animas, but on other watersheds as well). And the plume kept moving downstream. I’ve written elsewhere of the impacts on friends and clients, and their fears for the future. Downstream, water supplies for larger cities such as Farmington and Aztec in New Mexico, as well as irrigated lands on both the Southern Ute Indian Reservation and the Navajo Nation were threatened.
On Wednesday the 12th, the EPA thug-in-chief, Gina McCarthy, came to Durango and announced “victory” in the “battle” to “save” the Animas River. And on Friday, the EPA announced that conditions in the Animas have “returned to normal.” These were also predicted, to me by several attorneys and biologists, who pointed out privately that after the announcement by Governor Susan Martinez of New Mexico of a suit against EPA (and she was joined by Navajo Nation officials immediately) and even Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado (a Democrat) standing up on his hind legs about it, that she had to declare “victory” to save face and prevent even more political fallout. There is no proof that conditions have returned to normal. On Wednesday, when I spent much of the afternoon on the river about 12 miles south of Durango, the water was no longer orange but there were long sandbars of bright orange and yellow sediment visible in the bed of the river, and biologists’ recommendations to my fish habitat operating friend was to NOT let water flow directly from the river into the ponds (they cannot keep the river water out entirely, as it is connected with the ponds hydrologically through the sand and gravel of the riverbed).
But yesterday, with EPA technicians swarming over the area and “battling” the river (again making those of us who work with water and rivers and contamination on a daily basis wonder just what on earth they were doing, to “battle” anything except public opinion and fear), a new element appeared. Late in the evening, water in the river and the ponds was not “back to normal” but instead very warm (79F) and suddenly ALKALINE: a pH measured of 9.0. There may be many reasons for this, but the ones immediately thrown out (it is hot out) just don’t make sense. What DOES come to mind is that EPA is dumping something in the river, such as lime, to react with the acid in the water: usually an acid-alkali reaction is exothermic, producing heat. Heavy-handed application of tons of lime (or something else) in the river could cause both a sudden increase in pH AND increased water temperatures. The story is not over.
Nor is the long-term impact. Even if the water IS back to normal, and even if the sediments deposited for a hundred miles and more downstream are NOT stirred up during the next snow melt and the next big storm event, and the La Plata County Sheriff says people can be in the water, the word is out. As with other natural disasters, such as wildfires and quakes and floods, the tourists go elsewhere. The buyers of fish and beef and local crops look for other sources. And even a week of no customers during the peak season can push a struggling businesses like a restaurant or souvenir shop underwater (pun intended). I do expect La Plata and San Juan County (Colorado) to go into a mini-depression, especially since the effects of the crash of 2009 are STILL present in the region.
As for the EPA claiming “full responsibility,” well, that was a stupid mistake to commit in front of live cameras, but the bureaucrats and the politicians in Denver and DC know how to get around that: nobody expects the claims to be honored, or the damage to be made good. Far more important to keep the inner cities quiet, or do research on fat homosexuals in Burma, or support thuggish buddies in Ukraine, than actually use stolen taxpayer money to clean up a disaster caused by a government agency, again. Whether on purpose or not.
I am not certain who said it, but it has the ring of truth: ”The EPA actually has no concern for the environment, they just happen to use the environment as a cover story to create laws and gain an advantage for the companies that lobbied for exemptions to the agency’s regulations, and to collect money in fines. There are solutions outside the common government paradigm, and that is mainly the ability for individuals, not governments, to hold polluters personally and financially accountable.”