Opinion | Morgan Liddick: EPA cleanup should follow the rules
On Your Right
On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez missed a turn and ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling about 10 million gallons of crude oil. The following months of coverage featured daily doses of oil-slicked rocks, birds, seals, sea otters and the occasional cleanup worker. “High dudgeon” doesn’t approach the choleric response from the environmental community. People raved about the callousness of large corporations and the evils of fossil fuels. Politicians promised the wrath of everlasting bureaucratic oversight.
Exxon paid $2 billion in cleanup expenses, $1 billion in civil damage claims and $500 million in punitive damages — a relatively low figure arising from maritime law covering the incident. Environmental Protection Agency administrator William Reilly called the settlement “a clear signal to ship owners that they share responsibility for protecting waters and coastlines.”
On August 5, 2015, EPA workers protecting the environment at the old Gold King mine near Durango were digging around an adit and dislodged a debris dam, sending a torrent of highly-contaminated water into Cement Creek, thence into the Animas River — a tributary of the Colorado. They estimated the discharge at a million gallons but later trebled the amount. By Wednesday, they suggested that the worst was over, saying “the water in Cement Creek and the Animas River … continues to clear.” True, because the iron oxide responsible for turning the clear water of the Animas into liquid mustard had moved into New Mexico. Other poisons are less colorful but deadlier. They remain.
Gold King vomited three million gallons of water having concentrations of lead, arsenic, zinc, cadmium and other nasties at hundreds to thousands of times the recommended safe maximums — the EPA still isn’t specific on that — in two days. Where did these toxins go? Much of it settled into the sediment of the Animas — and perhaps downstream.
Unlike crude oil, an organic compound susceptible to breakdown and dissipation, lead is forever. It cannot be disposed of by laying down straw, spraying hot water or cleaning with a mop and a bucket of Palmolive. It has to be physically removed — a costly, laborious, time-consuming process with further impacts on downstream stakeholders. And, someone is going to have to pay.
Imagine a private company — Kinross corporation, which owns the nearby Sunnyside mine, for example — had put that shovel wrong. It would be torches-and-pitchforks time, with the EPA leading the charge. There would be a search for villains and much howling for blood. Think DuPont and toxic chemicals. Lowe’s and lead. The U.S. Army’s Camp Minden and expired munitions. Andarko Petroleum and a $4.4-billion “water quality” settlement (no irony there). Multi-million dollar fines and cleanup costs for Chesapeake Appalachian Coal, Alpha Coal, Tonawanda Coke and many others. That was just last year, when EPA fines totaled $163 million, with forced compliance costs reaching $9.6 billion.
Will the EPA fine itself? Force payment for cleanup and remediation, paid out of its own budget? Hardly. It is, according to Administrator Gina McCarthy, “initiating an investigation by a sister agency or outside entity” to determine what actually happened. She also suggested that as the toxic plume moved downstream, it would be diluted by the greater volume of water. Just like Prince William Sound cleaned itself up in 1989. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. We have companies to bankrupt and an economy to wreck…
If the EPA was really interested in the cause of this real anthropogenic catastrophe, most people in Durango would be able to tell them: Their researchers were poking around an abandoned mine from which contaminated water was leaking without being sure of the situation. They paid the price of poking, as will the citizens of the Animas and Colorado River watersheds, for years to come. This from the agency charged with protecting the world from the menace of gasses that every creature with a spine eliminates on a daily basis, in the interest of making the world one degree cooler two hundred years from now. You really can’t make this stuff up.
Here’s a suggestion: The same standard that the EPA applied to Exxon, Andarko and BP should be applied here: You break it, you buy it. No “gee, we’re really sorry” and that’s that. Full cleanup costs for toxic residue, complete compensation for the loss of livelihood, restoration to better than pre-spill conditions. All paid from the agency budget; no dipping into the General Fund. This might take some time to accomplish. Other stuff might not get done. But, since the EPA is generally unmoved by these sorts of arguments from the private sector, there’s no reason it should be allowed to avail itself of them now. Call it a learning experience. Maybe next time, its bureaucrats will think twice — about many things.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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