The EPA’s Epic Animas River Spill

00957918The August 5, 2015 Gold King Mine spill by the EPA created what has to be some of the most epic visuals in environmental history. That this spill was done by the EPA (or its contractor) is probably beyond belief by most citizens. After all, the EPA is supposed to clean things up, not make them worse. But beyond the cause of the accidental spill, the EPA’s lack of clarity in its disclosure to the public is also beyond belief. You can scour the EPA’s website on this disaster, and there is no yellow water to be seen. Just crystal clear mountain water. Of course, that water was anything but crystal clear when it charged down the hill and into the Animas river. Test results by the EPA disclose toxic levels of copper, arsenic, and antimony, to name but a few of the compounds. What is also interesting is that if you go to the EPA’s page with a summary of test results, they omit arsenic and antimony from their charts.  I understand that the EPA’s goal in the document linked below is not to disclose the actual threat posed by the contaminates but to explain that the levels have returned to their previous levels before the “blowout.”

Example of EPA test results.

The frequently asked questions page posted by the EPA downplays any real effect on the river or aquatic life.  Of course, if this yellow water was safe, then why was the EPA poking around the mine to begin with?

There are two additional issues that the EPA needs to address. First, there is the claim that the EPA waited a whole day before notifying downstream residents that the water was contaminated. If true, that is unforgivable.

Second, there is the question of financial responsibility. It is unlikely that the contractor that is reported as having actually caused the spill (Environmental Restoration, L.L.C. by some accounts) has enough insurance coverage to cover this claim. Some reports, probably sensationalist,  peg the cleanup in the billions.  I have information to lead me to believe that the contractor has at most $7M in total coverage. That may seem like a lot, but when the EPA conducts a removal action, its costs are usually astronomical, and several times higher than what a typical contractor would charge. I know that if one of my clients caused a spill of this magnitude the Justice Department would be all over this with indictments and subpoenas. Unless the individual states take action, I doubt that we will see the same level of concern or urgency by the Federal government that I see displayed when my own clients re accused of violating a law or permit. Who is to blame here? I have personally watched the EPA work with this particular contractor on a cleanup and I can assure you that Environmental Restoration L.L.C. does not do anything that the EPA project manager does not tell them to do.


About James Pray

Attorney with BrownWinick Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa.
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