The Gold King Mine spill and environmental responsibility

It is a truth generally accepted that rivers should not be mustard yellow, with the exception of some very limited circumstances, such as creative children’s artwork and the occasional hallucinogenic episode. Yet, this August, rivers across Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah turned an eerie yellow as a result of an environmental spill — one caused, oddly enough, by the EPA. The agency was raked over the coals for it as it admitted that the spill was the result of some mistakes at the containment site that had been used to handle the heavy metals and other contaminants released into the river, but it’s not the organisation that really deserves the blame.

The EPA has been tasked with an extremely challenging situation in the case of Superfund sites, locations that require extensive environmental cleanup. These sites are eligible for considerable federal funding to administer critically needed remediation, but more importantly, the EPA steps in to oversee cleanup when sites are ‘unclaimed.’ If that word sounds a bit strange to you, it should. Presumably, if a site became contaminated enough that it requires environmental cleanup, someone must have been using it, so how is it unclaimed now?

Because the prior owner wanted to dodge responsibility for it, that’s how. Across the United States, companies have used bankruptcy, court settlements, and a variety of other tactics to give up their claim on contaminated land and leave the resulting mess to the government to clean up — it turns out that your mamma does work here, at least when it comes to a kitchen you’ve dumped mercury in for decades. Such settlements may be reached because companies genuinely can’t afford to administer cleanup, or because the government wants to make sure that any work on the site is comprehensive, or simply because companies have enough attorneys to weasel out of responsibility for their own mess, literally.

One of the biggest offenders is the mining industry, which isn’t a surprise, given the environmentally harmful practices common to mining across North America. Mining companies remove vast amounts of material from the ground, but they don’t take it offsite for processing in a controlled environment — this would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, they handle it onsite, breaking it down to access the components of commercial value and discarding the rest. Often, this involves, or did involve, the use of environmental toxins in processing, including arsenic, very common at gold mines (and one of the compounds involved in the August spill).

The Gold King Mine was one such site. Abandoned by its owner, the site had to be cleaned up to protect the environment and prevent future environmental problems, which left the EPA entering the area to pick up the reins and address the situation. In the course of an investigation into what happened, the EPA determined that on-site personnel didn’t have accurate information about the pressure in a containment area, and consequently, it broke down, releasing millions of gallons of lead, zinc, iron, and other materials directly into a river — gold mines along with other mines are notably close to rivers by nature of geography as well as shipping convenience.

EPA officials swung into action clearly to assess the situation, issue public health advisories, and work with the affected states to get the spill under control. They freely acknowledged that the problem occurred on their watch and they needed to conduct a detailed investigation into the chain of events that led to the spill. The EPA might have been culpable for this particular spill, but it also shouldn’t have been left holding the bag for the owners of the mine, who merrily passed the situation off to the EPA and left it to deal with the consequences of its environmentally destructive practices.

The EPA is one of the most experienced authorities when it comes to environmental remediation in the United States, with decades of experience along with ongoing research and professional development to back its work. It is very, very good at what it does, and administration under the Superfund program is a smart move for many contaminated sites, including, likely, this very mine, even if the EPA did make catastrophic mistakes in this instance. But it’s unfair to trash the EPA for what happened at Gold King Mine when the real issue lay with who made the mess in the first place.

Mining is dirty. It’s incredibly dirty. It’s the driving force between environmental and political activism in regions like Appalachia, where mining has absolutely devastated communities and the environment. It’s become a cause in some unexpected places, like the jewelry industry, where some professionals are committing to clean sources of metals like gold, creating a market for metals mined and produced sustainably, including recycled metals that skip the need for mining altogether. Some of the worst contamination occurred before the EPA had specific regulations addressing concerns about the mining industry, because it didn’t understand the ramifications of some mining practices, or because it didn’t have the authority, or because industry pressure made it difficult to pass new rules despite a compelling body of evidence indicating that regulations needed to be put in place.

The problem with the Gold King Mine wasn’t the fact that the EPA was on site trying to manage an environmental disaster before it got any worse. The problem was that the disaster existed in the first place, and the United States allows corporations to evade considerable responsibility in a way that individuals cannot. Those angry at the spill should be criticising the legalities of incorporation, not the EPA’s best efforts at making the best of a bad job.

Image: Smoky Mountain River, Ken Rowland, Flickr