No Winners in EPA Colorado Gold Mine Spill Debacle

The accidental release of chemicals from an abandoned mine in Colorado by an EPA cleaning crew has generated significant anger among the local populace, and frustration continues to build as residents wait for answers.

Last week, an EPA team accidentally released millions of gallons of hazardous chemicals from a decommissioned gold mine into the Animas River in Western Colorado. The spill contains arsenic, lead, copper, aluminum, and cadmium, and has coalesced into a 100-mile stretch of bright yellow water now working its way south toward New Mexico and Utah. According to the Denver Post, the spill has raised the acidity of the river south of the spill to pH 4.8, comparable to orange juice or Dr. Pepper. The EPA has stated that it does not believe the spill poses a significant danger to local wildlife, but the Animas River has nonetheless been temporarily closed. According to one estimate, as many as 1,000 nearby wells may be contaminated with the tainted water. The possible long-term health effects on nearby residents are not yet known.

The Colorado incident comes at an unfortunate time for the beleaguered agency, which has been getting flak from House and Senate Republicans for years on its clean air and water initiatives, and more recently from a number of GOP Presidential candidates. However, if the EPA had an image problem with a significant constituency of the body politic before the spill, especially in the West, it is safe to say this recent incident has done even more serious damage to its credibility.

Unfortunately for the agency, lost in the current conversation is the fact that about 9,000 mines in Colorado have been successfully cleaned up by the EPA or other entities, and that another 14,000 other mines may still need future attention. The U.S. has an estimated half-million abandoned mines total and the EPA is quickly approaching an ‘environmental Catch 22’ – darned if they do, darned if they don’t.

News reports have described intense frustration from residents with the EPA not only over their causing the accident, but also their perceived inability to provide firm answers regarding the health impact of the spill or a timeline for cleanup. The EPA has said it is currently conducting tests to determine the risks posed by the water. The EPA has not been able to tell residents when they should expect to safely return to the impacted waterways.

Some entities in the region — including the Navajo Nation — have said they intend to sue the EPA or that they are considering such action. Politicians representing the impacted area also had harsh words.

Scott Tipton, U.S. Representative for Colorado’s 3rd District, issued a statement reading in part:

“There is widespread frustration with the EPA’s initial response and the lack of information coming out of the agency — the poor communication is unacceptable. If a mining operator or other private business caused the spill to occur, the EPA would be all over them. The EPA admits fault, and as such must be accountable and held to the same standard.”

Colorado State Senator Ellen Roberts, who represents the area, called the incident “an EPA-caused Love Canal.”

And on Monday of this week, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper issued an executive order declaring a state of disaster due to the spill.

The EPA seems to be building up to a forthcoming announcement in which the public will learn the extent of the health risks arising from the accident, and also the status of the leak. Look for more information in the days ahead on the MSDSonline EH&S Blog.