The Animas Spill and the problem with the EPA

Photo from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

EPA DISASTER: An estimated three million gallons of pollutants spilled into the Animas River after an EPA reclamation project was botched.

By Paul Gessing | Watchdog Opinion

So much has been said and written about the EPA-induced debacle on the Animas River. To be clear, living in New Mexico as I do, I have spent a great deal of time in and around Silverton, Colorado and Durango as well as New Mexico’s Four Corners.

The areas are beautiful and attract tourists from all over the world for outdoor activities like skiing, fly fishing, mountain biking, and the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge train.

There is also a rich mining history in the area. You can scratch most any ski area in the region like Durango or Telluride and find that it was originally settled as a mining town.

Yes, there are abandoned mines throughout the area. The Gold King Mine last operated back in 1922 [2], long preceding EPA regulations as well as modern scientific understanding of the potential environmental impacts of allowing mine waste to flow freely into rivers and other bodies of water.

The EPA was only created in December of 1970 with Richard Nixon’s signing of an executive order. As usual, this was an example of a politician seeing a parade going by and stepping out in front so as to appear to be leading it.

The environmental movement had been growing rapidly in the preceding years with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the devastating Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969. The strength of the movement had culminated earlier in 1970 with celebration of the first Earth Day on April 22nd.

American attitudes about the environment and its stewardship were changing fast. The environmental movement is now one of the most powerful interest groups in Washington. Not surprisingly, the EPA has grown far beyond its original design with dire economic impacts. The agency’s annual budget is “just” $11 billion, but according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s study of federal regulations, EPA regulations alone cost the US economy a staggering $353 billion annually [3].

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

The way the EPA does business is also problematic and could fill many books. Just recently, The New York Times revealed [5] the agency colluded with environmentalist groups in a campaign to manufacture public comments in favor of its new “Waters of the US Rule.”

That, of course preceded the debacle on the Animas River, a 3 million gallon spill of arsenic and heavy metals which was caused by EPA contractors. From the start, this was a high-risk strategy the failure of which was predicted by a local geologist who went on to argue in a letter to the Silverton Standard, that ran a week before the disaster, that it was a “grand experiment” that would fail while creating a “Superfund blitzkrieg.”

Clearly, the EPA is doing a less than stellar job of balancing economic needs with those of the environment. Perhaps it is time to allow a new type of federalism to flourish?

Rather than a one-size-fits all regulatory power out of Washington, perhaps states could opt out of some or all EPA regulations and regulate environmental issues themselves? I don’t foresee Congress, no matter the political makeup, voting to get rid of the EPA in its entirety, but Washington clearly doesn’t have all the answers to our environmental issues.

Currently, hydraulic fracking, to name just one important activity, is regulated at the state level. And, while environmentalists have repeatedly attacked the process, even the EPA has found no ill effects on groundwater from the widely-used process.

Untying the EPA knot will not be an easy or fast process. In just 45 years, the agency has spread its tentacles into every facet of the American economy and our lives. Perhaps the Animas spill, like the Santa Barbara spill of the 1960s, will alter the direction, but in more free market direction that also respects American federalism and state prerogatives.

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2 Replies to “The Animas Spill and the problem with the EPA”

  1. At the very least, Gina McCarthy and her fellow executives at the EPA should be fired for cause. However, I won’t hold my breath…

  2. The irony here is that our Congressional representatives are siding with the polluters. Sen. Heinrich has not had an unkind word for the EPA and blames the long-dead miners who dug the stuff up a century ago. The rest of our Congressional delegation is in hiding.

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