by Patrick Paul
As we previously reported, less than a month ago contractors working under the guidance and direction of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inadvertently triggered a breach at the abandoned Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado, thereby unleashing three million gallons of mercury, arsenic, and lead-laden sludge into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. Although an accident, EPA had notice at least as of June 25, 2014 via a Region 8 Task Order Statement of Work that: “Conditions may exist that could result in a blow-out of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediment from inside the mine, which contain concentrated heavy metals.”
The mustard-colored pollutant plume flowed quickly into the San Juan River and New Mexico, and ultimately into Lake Powell and Arizona and Utah. That this occurred in the arid southwest where water resources are particularly precious and limited only heightens concerns. Many cities along the Animas and San Juan Rivers were forced to shut down municipal drinking water systems. Farmers and ranchers needed alternate water sources for crops and livestock. During peak summer use, tourism in and along river recreation-dependent towns was shattered.
The plume also contaminated water flowing through the Navajo Nation impacting the sovereign nation’s supply of irrigation water. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has expressed concern over the quality of its water system in the Northern and Southern Utah parts of the Navajo Nation. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has ordered EPA to stop seeking waivers from Navajo citizens and intends to sue Gold King Mine and EPA. Next month, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on September 16th to address the impacts of the spill on the Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Tribe.
The images were memorable and sad—kayakers surrounded by the plume exposed to its pollutants. All this essentially at the hands of the federal agency whose mission it is to protect human health and the environment. But alas, accidents happen. Nevertheless, the agency’s post-accident response begs many questions and suggests an inconsistent standard when compared with its demands of industry or others who themselves may inadvertently trigger a toxic plume of contamination.
Early response messages were inconsistent and widely criticized by impacted constituencies. The messaging has improved, but concerns remain. Authorities have recently removed restrictions on recreational and irrigation uses. Earlier today the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) declared that “Lake Powell is safe for Labor Day recreational activities including swimming and boating.” Against this backdrop questions about what happened to all the toxic metals and how the restrictions could be lifted so quickly exist. In short, it seems that the primary current remedial response to the Gold King spill is dilution. Yes, dilution.
To be fair, EPA recently constructed a series of retention ponds to treat the contamination. Some sampling occurred about two weeks after and is now taking place in earnest. Nevertheless, it is difficult to accept that those three million gallons are not in some way continuing to impact Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico rivers and their related habitat.
Of course, there really is a whole lot of water between Cement Creek and Lake Powell. The three million gallons of heavy metal contaminated waters equals to approximately 400,000 cubic feet. Yet when compared to the average daily flow through Cement Creek of 8 million cubic feet daily, it’s certainly plausible that time and dilution may be the most cost effective remediation method. EPA seems satisfied at this approach. Many industries wish that EPA might approve similar remediation approaches to other industrial plumes. The reality is that natural attenuation and dilution can be effective remedial methods and not only to remediate EPA caused contamination.
Given the magnitude of the spill, it seems the agency also should reimburse for required hauled water and compensate for the likely loss of livestock and irrigation, not to mention the losses to the tourism industry in the impacted areas. Oil, mining, coal companies, and others have been held to no less a standard. Why should it be different for EPA?