August 12, 2015
A week ago, three million gallons or so of water laden with toxic metals from an old mine near Silverton, Colorado, surged through a natural dam and flowed into the Animas River, turning it mustard-colored, mile by mile, hour by hour, downstream, leaving residues of noxious film along the banks as water levels receded. The Animas flows into the San Juan River in New Mexico, and its waters thereafter join with those of the Colorado River in Lake Powell. The disaster is of regional dimensions.
Reporting on the cause of the event has been thin. What’s known at this point is that the EPA had decided to install a pipe to drain the mine so it could be permanently plugged. In preparing for this operation, EPA’s contractors unintentionally breached the dam. The flood followed. Now it should be easy to plug the mine.
I’ve seen nothing reported as to where the EPA would drain the damned-up three million gallons of toxic water to; no mention of a containment tank having been constructed. Was there any place where these waters could be directed and not find their way into the watershed?
In any case, it’s clear that the risk involved was of such magnitude that much more thoroughly equipped and competent engineering resources should have been brought to bear, in the absence of which the EPA should have at least observed Hippocrates injunction, “First, do no harm.”
There’s reason to believe that this was an environmental disaster waiting to happen. One can only guess at how many lie ahead and with what frequency we will experience them. What should be clear to all is that this calamity is not a reason to shrink the size or constrict the powers of the EPA. Rather it’s a reminder of how we need a stronger, more capable, and more vigilant Agency. Among its resources, I would argue, should be an elite special forces team that can be dispatched to where a threatening environmental catastrophe might be mitigated or prevented by prompt effective action.