Damage control around the 2015 Gold King Mine spill—not fixing the damage caused—is EPA’s priority. During an interview at the Harvard School of Public Health, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy talked down the damage done to the Animas River:
But, the good news about Gold King is that, you know, it really was a bright color, but the bright color was because the iron was oxidizing. It meant we had actually less problem than how it usually leaks, which is pretty constantly, and so it was only a half a day's release of what generally comes from those mines and goes into those rivers.
After the spill, Administrator McCarthy articulated plainly, “We will hold ourselves to a higher standard than anybody else." Both the public and members of Congress are still waiting for that to happen.
Others are saying what has been said on Above the Fold: There is a double standard. EPA would not be as gentle on a business that did what the agency did in Colorado.
In The Wall Street Journal [subscription required] Mike Flynn, New Mexico’s Secretary for the Environment, countered Administrator McCarthy’s claim that the spill was less of a problem than thought:
About two weeks after the spill, the EPA released an environmental standard for the Gold King mine sediment that was an order of magnitude weaker than those applied to other polluters. The agency used a “recreational” standard and suggested that lead in the soil at 20,000 parts per million would be “safe” for campers and hikers. But in New Mexico people live along the Animas, so a “residential” standard would be more appropriate. During a cleanup of a superfund site in Dallas, in the regional EPA office’s own backyard, the standard for lead in the soil was 500 parts per million.
The EPA released a chart that seemed to show lead levels in the Animas to be near zero. But the chart used a linear, instead of a logarithmic, scale. As any high-school science student can tell you, a linear scale can visually compress data and make it appear close to the zero line. In reality the lead levels had screamed past maximum contaminant levels for drinking water, defined as 15 parts per million. We advised communities that drew from the river to close their water intakes and rely on emergency backup supplies, which they did.
Even months later, although the yellow water has passed, the EPA’s data show that storms have disturbed contaminated sediment and pushed lead levels back above the tolerance for safe drinking water. The city of Farmington (pop. 45,000) still shuts its water intakes whenever storms or snowmelt increase water turbulence.
Yet the EPA persisted in claiming that the watershed had returned to “pre-spill” conditions. Such subterfuge made our job of educating the public on the consequences of the spill much more difficult. It seems clear to me that the EPA sacrificed truth on the altar of image management.
EPA can’t be objective here since it caused the calamity. Imagine if a business caused 3 million gallons of toxic waste to spill into a river, only to then declare that according to its own standard everything was fine. EPA wouldn’t accept that.
Neither is New Mexico which, along with Utah and the Navajo Nation, plans to sue EPA over the spill. It’s understandable why. It’s what EPA would do to anyone else.
As EPA defends in federal court its attempt to enlarge its regulatory authority through its Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, remember how it’s behaving when it violates the laws it is trusted to enforce.