February 26, 2016 | Commentary on Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado

The EPA's Toxic Tailings

Remember the Gold King mine spill in Colorado last August? Probably not. It was big news at the time, with pictures of people kayaking in the state’s Animas River, which had turned a kind of sickly yellow from a flood of toxic waste water accidentally dumped into it by the Environmental Protection Agency.

That’s right — the EPA. The river had been contaminated not by a more easily demonized private company, but by the EPA itself. The agency took responsibility, a clean-up effort began, and the news cycle moved on to other things.

But the Gold King mine spill is back, thanks to a new report by the House Committee on Natural Resources. It seems the spill was worse than the EPA initially let on.

It was already known that the 3 million gallons of waste water released into the Animas contained toxic heavy metals — arsenic, lead and mercury among them. Now we’ve learned that it was 880,000 pounds of these dangerous metals, flowing from one of the thousands of abandoned mines that dot Western states.

Ironically, the agency was on-site to identify and stanch a leak of contaminated water within the mine. But officials wound up dislodging a plug of material that kept the toxic water dammed up. Out came a deluge of chemical-laced waters, pouring into a river that serves as a drinking-water source for thousands of residents in Colorado and other states.

New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told Fox News that field-level EPA officials have been helpful, but added that “something gets lost in translation once it gets to the leadership level. They would be happy to see this just all go away.”

If that sounds a bit strong, consider the report the EPA commissioned about the Gold King mine spill. Prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), a component of the Interior Department, it seems comprehensive enough — at first glance. It contains photos, maps and charts about the affected area. At 89 pages, it’s certainly long enough.

But, writes Heritage Foundation fellow Paul Larkin Jr., “the considerable amount of non-narrative material … does little for the lay reader but distract from the question of who is responsible for this spill and whether or not he or they will be held accountable.” For that matter, “the material does little to inform readers exactly how the incident happened.”

Now, on the heels of the incomplete BOR report, we have the House one. “We’re going to take a look at the report and will respond appropriately,” EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham said in a written statement.

But we have little reason to buy such an assurance, especially from an agency with the EPA’s terrible reputation. As I detailed in a column last fall, a report from Open the Books, a nonprofit group that promotes government transparency, has raised some serious eyebrows about the EPA.

For one thing, the agency spends money like it’s running its own printing press. An audit by Open the Books of EPA expenditures from 2000 to 2014 found hundreds of millions going toward such things as luxury furnishings, sports equipment and “environmental justice” grants to raise awareness of global warming (hardly an issue with an “awareness” problem).

For another, the EPA has spent millions of dollars in the last decade arming itself to the teeth. It has bought guns, ammo, body armor, camouflage equipment, unmanned aircraft, amphibious assault ships, radar and night-vision gear and other military-style weaponry and surveillance activities.

Such material is supposedly needed for commando-style raids against environmental offenders. One such raid in 2013 was conducted against Alaskan miners accused of polluting local waters.

It’s too much to hope that the agency will raid itself over the Gold King mine spill. But given the lack of accountability so far, it’s about time someone demanded some real answers. The EPA has some serious explaining to do. Will no one make them do it?

 - Ed Feulner is the founder of the Heritage Foundation.

 - This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times.


About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Originally appeared in The Washington Times