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Mine drainage near Silverton Colorado

2014 – mine drainage near Silverton Colorado

One of my friends posted on Facebook, justifiably upset over the very recent spill of hazardous water from an abandoned mine tailings pond. In part, she was upset with EPA. I understand her frustration.

But I have to speak up in defense of the EPA. [Self-disclosure: For 25 years, beginning with the passage of the legislation creating the EPA and the Clean Water Act, I was an active environmental engineer and I worked on many cleanup/mitigation projects in the South. Almost all of them involved interaction with the EPA.] Granted, the EPA is not a perfect organization, but they are the best in the world at what they do. Even the best make mistakes and this was a big one. But we must look back at why the EPA was there.

Colorado has over 22,000 abandoned mines, most leaking contaminated water that runs into streams. The mines near Silverton are some of the worst. Between 2005 and 2010, three out of four fish species that lived in the Animas River below Silverton died. The owners of the mines, long gone, were not around to pick up the cost of cleanup – a common problem with abandoned mines all over the US.

Since 1990, EPA had been trying to get the state/locals to move forward with abatement efforts, but the local businesses, read Republicans, were afraid that labeling the mines “hazardous wastes sites’ or worst yet, Superfund Sites, would drive off potential mining companies who they saw as important job sources.

Earlier this year, the locals reached an accommodation with the EPA: the EPA would not list the site as Superfund as long as efforts to mitigate the water quality near the mines were made and EPA agreed to pay for these cleanup efforts.

That cleanup project began in July with the initial efforts aimed at determining just what was there structurally and functionally – it’s difficult to get construction drawings, “as builts” as we used to call them, from defunct companies or a state that previously did not require mining companies to file such things. To find out what is underground, even with such things as ground penetrating radar, you ultimately have to dig. And when you dig, you sometimes hit unexpected things.

Some say the EPA should just have left the abandoned mines alone. I don’t agree. Experience shows these things ultimately leak or blow out just due to age or unexpected rains. In my own experience, trying to diagnose a fix for a superfund site like a long abandoned waste pit is akin to trying to defuse a terrorist bomb – you really may get blown up either if you leave it alone or if you touch it.

So let’s not shoot the EPA over this mistake – and it really is the contractor by the way. The EPA has done much good and been right far more often than they are wrong. We need them and we must not let the Republicans defund them.

One final note. Here in Alabama, our Republican governor’s and legislature have so severely cut the funding of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, that that agency is no longer able to manage the water quality of our state waters. Unless funding is restored, and right now it looks like even more cuts of ADEM’s budget are coming, the EPA will have to step in and take over monitoring of our state waters.