While trying to clean up our unregulated past, the EPA has accidentally jeopardized the future
Accidents happen, but this particular accident, the “Colorado Spill” caused by work being done by the Environmental Protection Agency is a big deal. It has some serious potential impacts on a large number of people in the Four Corners region of the American southwest. Native Americans, the Navajo Nation in particular, make up a large percentage of the people suffering from this accident.
The accident occurred as the EPA was continuing an investigation of a decades-old slow leak of acid heavy metals from an old mine in Cement Creek in Silverton, Colorado. The investigation had been suspended last year, and the portal back-filled.
As work began anew, a plug blew, releasing water containing metals including zinc, iron and copper. The contaminated water released was initially estimated at one million gallons. Within a day the estimate climbed to three million gallons of waste-water having contaminated the creek. The slow leak was easily dissipated before reaching the Animas and the San Juan Rivers, whose reach is extensive in the region. But three million gallons of tainted water is exactly the environmental disaster it sounds like.
Communities with treatment facilities have been forced to shut down intake from the Animas and San Juan Rivers. The Gold King Mine in Silverton was the source of the toxic sludge making its way south in Colorado and to New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. The mine had been closed since 1923.
What has this accident wrought? Possibly unsafe drinking water in wells near the river. People are being told to stay out of the river. Some are listening. Bottled water is being brought in, at great expense to the federal government. For the short term to meet immediate needs, Colorado and New Mexico are releasing state funds to address the disaster. These monies will help with testing and satisfying water requirements for drinking, bathing and watering crops.
Crops are a particular concern, considering the already precarious water situation of the American southwest. Bottled water is not going to help them. Farmers have stopped pulling water from the Animas and San Juan Rivers. They cannot risk contaminating the crops as the river water tests high for toxins.
They are hoping and praying for rain. The amount of water that Mother Nature will provide to keep crops going through the remaining hot summer days until harvest will likely not be enough. It is monsoon season in the southwest. Hopes are high that rainfall will keep the chile and other crops alive until the water normally used for irrigation tests safe for use.
Do not let the recent flooding in Colorado fool you, though. That precipitation is welcome, but a few storms resulting in flooding does not correct years-long drought. And just because it rained today or yesterday does not guarantee enough to save some of these farmers this season.
Yes, many municipalities have town water supplies that go through treatment facilities, but much of the west is populated with small towns without such services. Wells supply a large amount of needed water. These are also the people who get their propane tanks filled for fuel. They are also the ones who get their electricity from wires that appear to date back to the middle of the last century.
Some of these people may be well off enough to be able to live out in the middle of nowhere. For most of these people though, the exact opposite is the case. They only just survive. No safe water for drinking, cooking or bathing is one more knock on a very hard life.
So far we have discussed how this environmental disaster is impacting people, families and farms, but there are other concerns as well. The environment of the waterway, the fish, the fowl and other wildlife that populate it. These impacts can be seen ‘downstream’ along with any detrimental effect on trees and grasslands that touch this beautiful mountain and high desert landscape.
The hope is that the heavy rains will bring the river back to health quickly. But what about the toxic chemicals, the arsenic and lead that was released from the mine, as it seeps into the ground? What do we gain from a river that gets flushed fairly clean when everything around it could die? Sections of the landscape are dead and take a very long time to recover. Usually more than a human lifetime.
Whitewater rafting, camping, hiking, fishing, scenic drives. Tourism is a very large part of the economy of the southwest. The states that make up the Four Corners region being affected by this horrible accident – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona – rely greatly on their natural wonders for visitors.
This spill may well be contained to where these four states meet. The San Juan River does, however, dump into Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. That’s some 250 miles from the source of the accident. How far are Glen Canyon and Lake Powell from the Grand Canyon? About another 250 miles, give or take as the water flows.
One has to hope that the Environmental Protection Agency has learned a massive lesson here. We have too many things that we cherish in our lives. The EPA’s procedures need to be so tight when dealing with these dangers. They were there at this mine for clean-up, after all. To have screwed this up so badly is unthinkable. Unconscionable. The things we cherish need to be clear to the EPA. Those things must be as important to them as they are to us.
The EPA’s protocols for dealing with clean-ups need to be evaluated, because we cannot afford another one of these spills. We have enough to worry about with global warming and drought, with pipelines bursting in the heartland and oil rigs exploding in our gulfs.
Some rivers, like the Colorado through Utah, run brown in areas because of the colors of the rock and silt. Some, like the Red River, run a rusty red due to the famous western red rock landscape. But no river, not the Animas, not the San Juan, should ever run orange.