The EPA Should Resign in Shame over Orange River

The Animas River in recent days. (Lawyers, Guns, and Money)
Three million gallons of wastewater have turned the Animas River orange in recent days. (@Gotham3)

EspañolThe scene was otherworldly. A river tinted orange by a toxic brew of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, and other pollutants. Three million gallons of wastewater from an abandoned gold mine in rural southwestern Colorado flows slowly downstream. Communities are shutting off drinking water collection. Vacationers are being warned to avoid contact with the contaminated water.

The cause? None other than a mistake by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The Wall Street Journal reported details on the incident Sunday, noting that the spill was initially downplayed by the EPA, and that it was much larger than first reported. Most importantly, as of Sunday, the mine is still releasing wastewater at a rate of about 500 gallons per minute. The pollution incident is ongoing.

This latest toxic release is yet another example of the EPA spectacularly failing at its primary mission. As I’ve expressed in this space before, the government is not particularly competent at environmental remediation and management.

The number of abandoned mines in the federal government’s purview is simply astounding. A 2011 Government Accountability Office report found at least 161,000 abandoned hardrock mines, with 33,000 of them having already harmed the environment.

Federal agencies control so many pollution sites, with many dams holding back pools of contaminated liquid, that failure was inevitable. Part of the issue is simply the size of the problem. These abandoned mines must be remediated by someone, and doing nothing is not a politically acceptable answer.

But nothing says it must be the federal government that must be in charge of the remediation efforts. States, localities, and private organizations are far more prepared and knowledgeable about local problems like abandoned mines.

When it comes to abandoned mines, as with many other political problems, the answer might be to devolve the problem to the states. The beauty of devolving abandoned mine remediation to the states is twofold: fairness and efficiency.

From the fairness perspective, it makes sense for those affected by local pollution issues to be the ones to seek their remediation. Right now, people and places that have never benefited from the economic boost of hardrock mining pay for environmental cleanup hundreds of miles from their location.

Federalized mine cleanup is a redistribution from places that were never helped or harmed by mines to places where mines were a major part of the economy for decades. Moreover, with political careers on the line, it’s likely that oversight for projects like the one that polluted the Animas River would be far better.

From an efficiency perspective, state EPAs have a better handle on which environmental problems are most pressing and can allocate resources accordingly. When particular environmental problems are pressing, localities could also step in, with locally raised tax dollars, to fix problem sites that acutely affect their residents.

Local chapters of national outdoor recreation users, such as Trout Unlimited or other fisherman’s or boaters’ associations, have long been involved in this issue, and could have their expertise enlisted in remediation efforts. Civil society can often do better than government on environmental issues.

While the EPA must balance resources, both for remediation and oversight of those doing the work, state EPAs have more reason to watch projects closely. When something goes wrong, voters know who is to blame and can vote for reform-minded candidates accordingly.

In rural areas, where environmental and land management issues are more important compared to cities, failure at environmental policy really does matter to politicians. This is not true of the EPA, whose oversight in Congress often looks more like political theater than actual attempts at remedying environmental issues.

Devolving environmental cleanup might finally bring meaningful oversight to agencies that affect normal people in tangible ways.

The pollution of the Animas River was an avoidable tragedy. With an unknown number of mine remediation projects that must be overseen, the EPA is simply too big to meaningfully oversee all the places it is involved. The agency should have all local cleanup projects devolved to the states, with its role reduced only to truly national environmental challenges.

Only then can state taxpayers assess how many of their scarce dollars are put toward environmental cleanup compared to other policy priorities. Voters in some states may want more, and others less, but one-size-fits-all solutions that the EPA regularly puts forward rarely fit any state particularly well.

The EPA has failed enough. It’s time to finally make environmental policy, such as managing abandoned mines, a state affair.

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