Editorial: Change needed to prevent toxic mine spills

The Daily Times editorial board
The Daily Times

Using a backhoe to remove rock from the mouth of the Gold King Mine in an attempt to insert a pipe and drain toxic wastewater pooling in the tunnel, Environmental Protection Agency workers breached a plug holding the water back.

Water laden with lead, cadmium, arsenic and other heavy metals came gushing forth. As we understand it, the workers made an unsuccessful effort to contain the wastewater in a pond. And they failed to use proper notification protocol.

So the first word New Mexico officials received of the spill of 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas River was from Southern Ute Tribe officials.

It's easy to find fault with the EPA response to this disaster, right from the beginning. After the slow notification, agency officials provided bare-bones information for a week, then came a deluge of raw testing data with no explanation other than the mantra that the contamination is "returning to pre-event levels."

EPA officials reminded us that the river already was contaminated from previous spills from those high-altitude mines in Colorado. But if there is still contamination from decades-old spills, how is it possible that all the toxic metals from this spill have so quickly washed away? The agency's approach, so far, has been bureaucratic — crafted by lawyers anticipating lawsuits? — and doesn't inspire confidence.

Both city of Farmington and New Mexico Environment Department testing showed that lead levels slightly above the state's drinking water standard remained shortly after the plume of contamination moved through. The data they provided were accompanied with a short paragraph interpreting the numbers. That's the way the EPA should be doing it.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy was in town to assure residents that the agency will hold itself to a higher standard than it uses when it levies multi-million-dollar fines on private businesses that pollute the environment. But EPA officials have declined to go beyond a few paragraphs in a press release when asked whether the agency would amend it's claims process to provide relief to hardscrabble ranchers and farmers who can't wait two years to evaluate the damage done to their operations. So much for those higher standards.

Nonetheless, EPA is not the only entity with culpability. Miners operate under an archaic mining law that was meant to encourage westward expansion. It allows claims on public land for next to nothing and imposes little oversight. And Silverton-area residents have opposed a Superfund designation that might have provided significant funding for cleaning up the mine-pocked landscape north of their town and the legal means to hold those mining companies responsible.

The only thing that's clear at this point is that — if nothing changes — we will see more plumes of toxic mine waste flowing through our rivers.