ON AUGUST FIFTH, WHILE AGENTS OF THE Environmental Protection Agency were trying to pump contaminated sludge out the abandoned Gold King mine in Colorado, a leak sprung, and as a result, 3 million gallons of the sludge was dumped into the Animas River. The river turned an ugly shade of brownish-yellow, and people whose lives revolve around the river were pretty much screwed — anyone who may have ingested the water would have been exposed to dangerously high levels of lead, meaning that towns would have to dip into water reserves, and farmers who are dependent on the river for crop irrigation basically just have to watch their crops die.
Much of the frustration that has been vented has been directed squarely at the EPA, who has taken responsibility for the leak, and has stopped mine cleanup at other sites in order to make sure a similar leak doesn’t happen again. Why, you might think, aren’t we pissed off at the company that polluted the mine in the first place?
Because the mine has been inactive for 95 years. Why, you might ask, would a mine with 3 million gallons of toxic sludge sit untouched for nearly a century? The answer is predictably depressing.
The country is covered in abandoned mines like these.
Earthworks, a non-profit that fights pollution from extractive industries like mining, estimates that there are around 500,000 abandoned mines littered around the country that still need cleaning. This came about because of permissive mining laws that were written during the settlement of the American west in the late 1800s. The laws were permissive because the government wanted to get people to settle the west, and thus basically put no responsibility on mining companies for cleanup. This mining law — signed by President Grant in 1872 — is still in place today.
While the Animas River spill is gigantic and disturbing, it’s actually not particularly unusual: the EPA estimates that 40% of streams in the American west are already polluted by these abandoned mines, which are slowly leaking their sludge out into the surrounding environment.
The EPA is tasked with cleaning up these mines. The mining companies themselves have very few responsibilities.
Mining companies make oil companies look like saints.
In Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he looked in depth at the practices of the industry that is the worst toxic polluter in the United States. The culprit is not, as many environmentalists might think, the oil industry, but is actually the hardrock mining industry.
Mining causes a lot of environmental damage regardless of cleanup: ripping minerals out of the ground is generally not great for the surrounding area, especially when the mines are open pits, and when the material you’re pulling out of the ground is toxic to humans. So to be fair, the battle is already an uphill one. But mining companies practices make the problem much worse:
First, they don’t typically clean up while they’re mining. They only wait until the mine has shut down, and then they do the minimal cleanup and then leave it be. Second, as Diamond puts it, “Hardrock mining companies facing cleanup costs frequently avoid those costs by declaring bankruptcy and transferring their assets to other corporations controlled by the same individuals.” Hardrock mining also has lower profit margins than the oil industry, for example, so often the bankruptcy is legitimate. The cleanup after such a bankruptcy would fall squarely on the taxpayers.
These low profit margins and the high cost of environmental cleanup, says Diamond, all contribute to a kind of wild west, robber baron culture in the mining industry, which makes it that much worse. It doesn’t help that it’s difficult for miners to feel any sort of public backlash when they do something terrible: when BP spilled tons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, it was at least possible for consumers to drive by gas stations marked as BP. But the products produced by hardrock mines often end up as small parts in other products, and are ridiculously hard to trace. So miners, without some sort of regulation, can act with impunity.
The EPA has an impossible job.
“The most unbelievable thing about Ghostbusters,” comedian Kurt Braunohler says, “is how much power the EPA has.” It’s a fair point: the EPA is constantly under attack because of its perceived political leanings and because its job is basically to enforce government regulations that can be really expensive for the regulated companies. It also doesn’t help that their image is that of an incompetent government bureaucracy — an image that’s been as much created by their own mistakes as it has by movies like Ghostbusters.
But the EPA has what’s basically an impossible job: to clean up the 500,000 abandoned mines littered around the country at the cost of what they estimate to be around $50 billion. In an ideal world, they would not make a single mistake during the cleanup of all these mines (actually, in an ideal world, these mines wouldn’t need cleaning, but that’s beside the point). But that’s too optimistic. Mistakes are going to be made, and some of the mistakes are going to be huge.
As a result of the Animas spill, the EPA is facing what will almost certainly be millions in lawsuits, and they’ve provided their political opponents with a little more fodder with which to chip away at their funding.
While the EPA is hardly blameless, they are dealing with a problem they inherited — a problem we have yet to actually fix.
So how does it get fixed?
While funding the EPA and supporting mine cleanup would be a good start towards fixing this problem, it still ignores a glaring reality: we’re 500,000 mines behind, and new mines like these are still being created. Unless the law is changed, we’re not going to catch up, and until we catch up, disasters like the Animas River mine spill are still going to happen.
The good news is that Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva has introduced a bill to reform the hardrock mining industry, and Earthworks is coordinating a campaign to support this bill in the House. You can take part in that campaign here.
The bad news is that the backlash of the Animas spill is likely going to fall mostly on the EPA. And while they aren’t totally undeserving of that blame, they are also not the cause or the root of the larger problem. Mining sludge is not a particularly sexy political topic for the American public to get behind, so unless people start paying attention, this spill is going to cause a flare of anger which will then die down until the next spill inevitably happens.