The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Watching Colorado

Posted by | August 12, 2015

If you’re a clean water junkie like me, this week’s response by the EPA to the mine wastewater spill into Colorado’s Animas River — that their own contractors inadvertently caused — is a fascinating and sad event to watch from the sidelines.

U.S. E.P.A. aerial image of a polluted river following the Gold King Mine spill.

The daily updates on the EPA’s website are quite good and informative — nice transparency and responsiveness by the agency so far. (I wonder if there was a pre-written Disaster Response Plan.)

Critics are legion, however, particularly on the anti-government / right-wing side.

I think this is a great example of people seeing what they want to see and how opposing camps deliver their storytelling in real time.

On one side, there’s the perennially under-siege agency charged with keeping America’s waters clean ironically thrust into the role of polluter. (…But where did that pollution come from, who originally caused it, and why was EPA at the mine to begin with?) Never mind the thousand cleanups the EPA is running every day, the impact assessments they’re continually creating, the studies and grants they make — one “big” accident and a dramatic photo is enough to confirm in “the other side’s” mind that the EPA can do nothing right, ever.

How big is this spill? How much is three million gallons of mine wastewater? The media led with a picture of an orange river, but that was obviously the leading edge of the plume (more photos here). Three million gallons is, if I remember correctly, about half the size of the world’s largest fish tank at the Georgia Aquarium. It ain’t chump change. The 9-mile Santa Barbara oil spill this past spring was about 100,000 gallons; the Exxon Valdez was 11 million gallons; Deepwater Horizon was 210 million gallons.

And we know mine wastewater is nasty stuff, heavy-metal wise. That lurid orange color doesn’t help. It’s a non-trivial cleanup. I heard on NPR last night that this is the second spill in the river’s history, and that the river bounced back from a similar event 35 years ago.

We're watching.

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