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In the aftermath of EPA polluting a Colorado river with 3 million gallons of mine wastewater including lead and arsenic, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told NPR, “We are holding ourselves to a higher standard than we would hold other responsible parties.”
What exactly is that higher standard?
New Mexico’s Governor Susana Martinez (R) observed, “Imagine what would happen if a private company caused this waste spill.” We know what happened. As The Heritage Foundation’s Katie Tubb points out, companies have been fined millions of dollars by EPA for violating the Clean Water Act.
EPA could be treated like any other violator. There is recent precedence. New Mexico state environmental regulators agreed to a $73 million settlement with the Department of Energy this year over a radioactive leak at a DOE facility in 2014. That incident only affected one state. In comparison the Animas River spill affected residents, farmers, and small businesses in three states as well as the Navajo Nation.
An unsettling part of this story in learning how big a government failure the Animas River spill was. According to The Associated Press, EPA knew the risks at the Gold King Mine but was ill-prepared for a disaster:
U.S. officials knew of the potential for a catastrophic "blowout" of poisonous wastewater from an inactive gold mine, yet appeared to have only a cursory plan to deal with such an event when a government cleanup team triggered a 3-million-gallon spill, according to internal documents released by the Environmental Protection Agency.
A June 2014 work order for a planned cleanup noted the mine had not been accessible since 1995, when the entrance partially collapsed.
"This condition has likely caused impounding of water behind the collapse," the report said. "Conditions may exist that could result in a blowout of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediment from inside the mine."
A May 2015 action plan produced by an EPA contractor, Environmental Restoration LLC, also noted the potential for a blowout.
The May plan also called for a pond that would be used to manage the mine water and prevent contaminants from entering waterways. That pond was not completed.
A 71-page safety plan for the site included only a few lines describing what to do if there was a spill: Locate the source and stop the flow, begin containment and recovery of the spilled materials, and alert downstream drinking water systems as needed.
I can’t imagine EPA giving such leeway to any business that submitted such a vague disaster plan. You may recall EPA is the same agency that vetoed Alaska's Pebble Mine before a single federal permit application was even filed because the agency claimed it was a threat to local waters.
Under its Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, set to go into effect Friday August 28, EPA wants to regulate nearly every body of water. In light of the Animas River spill, if EPA can't keep it together to manage waters currently under its jurisdiction, what will it do when it's charged with regulating nearly all the waters in the nation?