DENVER — The environmental left can be counted on to whip up an outcry whenever a private company despoils a gulf, stream or river — unless the polluter in question is the Environmental Protection Agency.
After days with little or no reaction to the Gold King Mine spill, some Democrats and green activists are scrambling to provide cover for the EPA by pointing fingers elsewhere and downplaying the magnitude of the blowout, which flooded the Animas River with 3 million gallons of toxic orange wastewater.
“Blaming the EPA for #AnimasRiver spill is like blaming a doctor for the disease,” Conservation Colorado said in a Wednesday tweet.
Said Colorado state Rep. Joe Salazar, a Democrat, on Twitter: “Focus of #AnimasRiver contamination should be on mining companies and their mining practices, not EPA, yes?”
The Sierra Club Rocky Mountain chapter posted a link to an article titled “9 things you need to know about the Animas River spill.” The list includes “The EPA messed up, but they’re not the root cause” and “This isn’t the first time this has happened, nor is it the worst.”
Colorado state Sen. Ellen Roberts, a Republican who represents Durango, said she didn’t appreciate the campaign. She said it muddies the waters amid the effort to determine what toxins are in the river and a plan to clean up of the spill.
“It’s clear that the EPA from the start has admitted that they were the cause of the spill, so I find this troubling,” said Ms. Roberts. “These groups — they’re trying to shift the focus. I think they have a different agenda.”
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy continued Wednesday to make amends for the accident by touring the Animas River in Durango. She said the agency will “immediately cease any field investigation work” to ensure that there is no chance of a repeat spill.
She said water quality in La Plata County, Colorado, has returned to “pre-event conditions.”
Ms. McCarthy, who said she was “deeply sorry” in a Tuesday speech, is scheduled Thursday to visit the recovery efforts in Farmington, New Mexico, where the orange plume from the Animas River connected with the San Juan River.
The Aug. 5 spill of acidic waste, coupled with the EPA’s failure to notify anyone for 24 hours, has led Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye to threaten a lawsuit. The attorneys general for Colorado, New Mexico and Utah met Wednesday in Durango to discuss a coordinated legal response.
“It is the job of the attorney general to hold folks accountable, and that is what I am going to do in Colorado,” state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said at a Wednesday press conference.
For groups like ProgressNow-Colorado, however, the emphasis is on the political fallout from the accident. The EPA needs all the good will it can muster as it launches its hotly contested Clean Power Plan.
ProgressNow’s Amy Runyon-Harris sent out talking points Tuesday on the spill, which included, “Did the EPA ‘cause’ the Animas River mine water spill?” The answer: “Yes and no.”
“Abandoned hard-rock mines in the mountains above Silverton have been a source of water pollution for many years. The EPA was investigating ongoing water pollution from these mines,” Ms. Runyon-Harris said in her memo.
“In short, the EPA did cause the spill, but not the pollution itself,” she said.
Blaming the mining company
Mesa County activist Claudette Konola said in a Wednesday op-ed in Grand Junction’s Daily Sentinel that the real blame lies with “the mining company that never cleaned up the mess they left.”
But fingering the culprit may be a job better suited for a historian than the FBI. The Gold King Mine, active from 1890 to 1923, is one of about 23,000 decommissioned or abandoned mines dating back to Colorado’s gold rush days.
The Gold King Mine was ultimately purchased by the San Juan Corp., which said in a statement shortly after the blowout that it “has never mined the property or contributed to existing environmental conditions.”
“Using the best information available, it is believed that much of the contaminated water at the mine originated from another mining source and migrated to the Gold King Mine,” the company said. “SJC has worked cooperatively with the EPA to create a viable long term solution to the problem that has existed since 2003.”
The acidic orange discharge has alarmed locals, but some environmentalists insist it isn’t as bad as it looks, even though the spill contains heavy metals such as cadmium, copper, lead and arsenic. Only one of 108 fish died after being placed in cages in the Animas River, and wildlife officials have said there appears to be no danger to animals drinking from the river.
At the same time, the contamination is expected to settle into the sediment, resulting in spikes in the river’s concentration of metals after storms and heavy rainfall, said David Ostrander, the EPA’s unified area command leader in Durango.
“This material that was recently discharged will be stirred up during high rain events or spring runoff and continue to move downstream over time,” Mr. Ostrander said at Tuesday’s press conference.
“The impacts from this initial response will be measured and monitored for a number of years going forward to assess any impacts from this discharge,” he said.
Jonathan Lockwood, head of the free-market group Advancing Colorado, accused environmentalists of hypocrisy, saying they would never attempt to dismiss the impact of contamination caused by corporations.
“When a private company makes a mistake, environmental groups scream bloody murder,” Mr. Lockwood said. “But when the EPA inflicts a dangerous blow to the economy and environment, they try to deflect and dodge the reality and downplay the outrage.”
Ms. Roberts gave the EPA credit for its “forthrightness in admitting responsibility” instead of trying to shift blame elsewhere. The EPA-led crew at the site included agency employees and private contractors.
At the end of the day, however, “The question is, ‘How did the Animas River get that toxic sludge?’” she said. “And the answer to that question is, ‘The EPA put it there.’”