We live in a very polarized country, where political language is dominated by sound bites that sadly do not reflect in-depth research or objective understanding of the issues at hand. It’s a political system that is in many ways defined by a populous that often appears to be more interested in the entertainment value of political debates than in the substance. As a result, the media seems more focused on entertainment than accuracy. All of this is reinforced by powerful corporate interests that spin messages aimed to influence opinion in order to increase their bottom line. All of this creates a lot of noise. None of this leads to the truth or a careful, thoughtful examination of the issues in order to reach an informed perspective.
Misinformation makes the task of managing the health of our nation’s natural resources extremely challenging. Take the Las Animas mine spill in Colorado as a perfect example. If you’ve been reading the news, you will have noticed a great deal of finger pointing at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Did the EPA screw up in its efforts to clean up the Gold King mine? Yes and they have taken responsibility for it. But they did not create the problem of the acid mine wastewater that needed to be cleaned up.
Placing all of the blame for the Las Animas mine spill on the shoulders of the EPA shows a lack of in-depth study and consideration of why the EPA was there to begin with. I recently read a really great article by Jonathan Thompson in High Country News. Thompson doesn’t favor the EPA or the mining companies – his prose provides an objective scientific and historical analysis of the implications of past mining activities as well as the EPA’s underestimation of the pressure built up behind the dam. Importantly, he also provides an equally important emphasis on nature’s roll in this disaster – that acid mine drainage is a natural phenomenon that is exacerbated by mining. In short, he illustrates that there were many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, and so to place all the blame for the dam breach on the EPA is not only unfair and unfounded – it is fundamentally wrong and misleading.
Statements by individuals, such as former New Mexico state Rep. Kathy McCoy of Albuquerque, who commented, “Thank you EPA. If a private company had done this, they’d be jailed and fined within minutes” are inflammatory. Anyone who works in the field of water resources understands that hydrology is not that simple – ever. Gold King Mine contained pressurized acid water in large part due to past mining activities – a complex network of mine tunnels intercepted groundwater and exposed it to pyrite and oxygen, producing acid mine drainage. When Sunnyside Gold Corporation expanded their American Tunnel below the Gold King Mine in 1959, the Upper Gold King mine went dry. When they closed the American Tunnel in 1991, Sunnyside’s clean-up strategy included placing multiple bulkheads over tunnel openings, creating back-ups of acid mine water into their mine. It is possible that the pressure created cracks and leaks into neighboring mines such as Gold King, refilling it with acid water. The “dam” that was breached wasn’t a bulkhead placed by Gold King – it was created when a tunnel collapsed and it was the pressure that built up behind it that the EPA underestimated. The fact is, private companies’ past actions and activities were partly responsible for the mine breach.
The bigger problem here that is being overlooked – intentionally or not – is that, as Thompson points out, “Gold King Mine is only one of hundreds of abandoned mines in the basin, and one of dozens that are draining nasty water.” And that is just in the Las Animas River basin. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) maintains a national inventory of known abandoned mines on public lands. According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), “Abandoned mines generally include a range of mining impacts, or features that may pose a threat to water quality, public safety, and/or the environment. For many abandoned mines, no current claimant of record or viable potentially responsible party exists.” As of April 18, 2014, the BLM abandoned mine inventory included “nearly 46,000 sites and 85,000 features. Approximately 23% of the sites have either been remediated, have reclamation actions planned or underway, or do not require further action. The remaining 80% require further investigation and/or remediation.”
Inflammatory statements will not help us address the remaining 80% of our abandoned mines that continue to threaten our nation’s clean waters. They will not help us move forward in our efforts to restore our nation’s critical water resources. The polarizing statements made about the Clean Water Rule are another example of this. When I hear comments such as “The EPA needs to be stopped before it does more harm to our nation’s precious water resources” by influential political figures such as Julia Slingsby, spokeswoman for House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), in regard to the Clean Water Rule, I am deeply troubled. Does anybody really believe that the EPA intentionally works to harm the nation’s water resources? The EPA isn’t perfect, but I don’t believe there is a single federal or state agency, or corporation for that matter, that could be considered flawless either. The truth is that the Clean Water Rule is another well intentioned effort to address a pressing issue that the EPA, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, were asked to help clarify at the bequest from parties on both sides of the aisle. To imply that their actions are an effort to harm our nation’s waters distracts from the far more important discussion about what the Rule actually does or does not do.
So for Peat’s Sake, can we please have a national dialogue for once that is exempt from scientifically and legally unfounded statements aimed at further polarizing our political system? I yearn for the day when our leaders might carefully and impartially (and dare I say collaboratively?) use sound scientific and legal analysis to move our country into a healthier and more sustainable future. As Dana Scully and Fox Mulder on the X-Files would say – “the Truth is Out There.”