In August 2015, contractors working for the EPA were attempting to clean up the Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado. Acidic water, laden with harmful metals like lead and arsenic, was backing up inside the abandoned mine. The entrance to the mine had been plugged on the cheap, and the force of the backup of water broke through and began to cascade out of the entrance and into the Cement Creek below. That vile yellow mess flowed out through the Animas River, turning it a cartoonish shade of orange-gold, as it wound its way downstream to the San Juan and Colorado rivers, eventually poisoning water and land in three states and the Navajo Nation.
The proximate cause of the disaster appears to have been a misjudgment of the level of water pressure upon the plug and rubble sealing the mine entrance. Had the contractors dug down from the top of the mine, it would have been possible to calculate the pressure and avert the disaster. However, the usual coordinator was on vacation on the day of the breach, and for some reason the contractors decided to go in through the blocked entrance rather than excavating from above. The disaster is currently the subject of criminal investigation, hopefully bringing to light more details. This hasn’t stopped the storyline from becoming politicized, with the EPA calling the disaster an “unfortunate incident,” and conservative-leaning media coming right out to say that the government perpetrated this disaster on purpose and with malice aforethought.
Silverton is an old mining town from way back. It looks like a Wild West movie set, and after the mining industry went bust, the town took advantage of their aesthetic to cultivate the tourist industry as a way to keep their families fed. Although the many old mines around Silverton are liabilities that leach about 5.5 million gallons of acid wastewater every day (more than the roughly 3 million gallons released in the August 2015 Gold King breach), they resisted Superfund status because it would doom the tourist industry. (Odd, how cleaning up the mess would scare tourists away, but merely keeping the mess a secret wouldn’t.) It would also prevent the longed-for prosperity from any possible mining resurgence, since no company would step in to reopen a mine that had been declared a Superfund site. After the Gold King breach, however, the residents of Silverton and San Juan county commissioners voted unanimously in favor of asking the EPA to approve the Superfund status, seeing it as the only way to work effectively towards cleaning up the widespread environmental pollution.
It is this previous resistance to Superfund status that conservative-leaning media cite as the reason they believe the EPA deliberately triggered the spill. The ubiquitous leaching from multiple abandoned mines is reason enough for the EPA to declare the area worthy of Superfund status, but conservative sites are playing this as Big Evil Government marching in over the objections of the locals, a scandal nearly Benghazi-like in its cackling evilness. While an investigation is warranted, one wonders why GOP senators in particular are advocating so hard for the environment and the Navajo Nation in particular, as the Right is typically more pro-business and apathetic to the effects of the externalization of the costs of doing business than that. It reeks of hypocrisy, holding up the “bloody shirt” of the poisoned environment and struggle of the Diné (Navajo) people for political gain.
If Senator Barrasso is as pro-environment and pro-Native rights as his fuss implies, he is welcome to stop giving the Standing Rock Sioux the runaround and schedule the pipeline hearing the Indigenous Youth Council have been requesting. And if Republicans in general want to prevent environmental disasters like the Gold King blowout, they are welcome to give the EPA a decent working budget rather than making them try to do more with less, since trying to do quality work on the cheap is one reason disasters like this keep happening.
Mining is inherently polluting. Digging into mineralized rock exposes iron pyrite to air and groundwater, which sparks a catalytic reaction between oxygen, iron in the pyrite, and other elements to produce sulfuric acid that leaches toxic metals out of the rock. Water builds up and naturally carries this acid as it flows out of the mine into nearby rivers. This process is practically impossible to stop and it continues on a permanent basis: a copper-age mine in Spain, not used for thousands of years, still leaches acidic waste water into the Rio Tinto. While the failure at the Gold King mine illustrated rather spectacularly what can go wrong when accidents and misunderstandings pile up, the natural state of mines is to flood and leach, and this flood was likely inevitable whether it happened in a permanent trickle, a newsmaking burst, or both. This happens because we, as an industrial culture, demand the products of mining. It happens because we allow mine operators to extract the wealth and then, instead of using that wealth to render their mines less dangerous, to abandon the mines or go bankrupt, externalizing the costs onto you and me as taxpayers, and onto places like Silverton and the Diné nation. However, I suspect it’s much easier to blame the Gold King disaster on Evil Government than it is to really reflect on why these disasters are the inevitable result of our consumerist, extractive worldview.
Todd Hennis, the owner of the Gold King mine since he bought it as an investment in 2005, has compared the treatment he received at the hands of the EPA to the mafia, penetrative rape, and the Nazi extermination camps. I wonder what the Diné would say to that, since the river that supplies their drinking and irrigation water (and which is spiritually sacred to them) has been poisoned by a culture that they didn’t ask to have as neighbors and which they got along just fine without for thousands of years. Hennis claims that “the American Dream included being able to start a business and pursue it. And, ultimately, [reap] the fruits of that labor.” What he may not realize is that the fruits of that labor have already been reaped and squandered, leaving us with the costs, but not necessarily the benefits, of those now-abandoned mines.
The name that the Navajo nation gave to the emergency response to the Gold King disaster is “Operation Tó Litso,” which means “Yellow Water.” Considering how their way of life has been continuously harmed and marginalized by industrial culture, the trickle down joke makes itself.